Coming off a disappointing 2012, the Spartans look to begin a bounce-back year against Western Michigan in Spartan Stadium Friday night at 8:00.

Offense

There are questions from left to right on the Depth Chart, from top to bottom too.  Little is certain as Andrew Maxwell begins his Senior season starting for the Green and White, but we know the Offense must improve significantly if he’ll finish ‘13 as the starter.  That overall improvement will be a product of the Co-Coordinator experiment that is Jim Bollman and Dave Warner.  Many speculate whether or not sharing Offensive Coordinator duties can work.  If this unit stumbles out of the blocks, perhaps that arrangement will be reevaluated during the season.

Improvement must start up front with the Offensive Line that let the Spartans down as much as any group in 2012.  By now we all realize that injury derailed the entire playing group in 2012, starting with Fou Fonoti’s breakdown just before Notre Dame and carrying through for the duration of the year.  Injuries forced the likes of a young Jack Allen and a now obviously hampered Skyler Burkland into play when they weren’t really ready, and thus they were left exposed.  The result was an ineffective running game that featured one of the most gifted Spartan Running Backs of all time in Le’Veon Bell.  Now Bell is off to become the next great power running Pittsburgh Steeler, and MSU is left with a totally fresh backfield.

Look for a handful of backs to play early before hopefully a few emerge to get the bulk of the carries, starting with Jeremy Langford and Riley Bullough.  “They all have ability,” Coach D told Spartan Nation earlier this week when describing about a half dozen could be contributors.  At this point it looks more like a couple backs will share most of the carries rather than discovering a new Bell Cow who would take the rock over and over again.  If the Spartans cannot run the ball when they need to more often in 2013, it will only add stress to the passing game and scrambling ability of the Quarterback.

We talked extensively in the Fall Camp Outlook about the Wide Receivers needing to take the lead early on.  While nearly every other group in the Offense is unsettled heading into Friday night, the receiving corps has a relatively firmer footing.  It’s time for Aaron Burbridge to take the next step and become a budding star, time for a slimmer Bennie Fowler to put it all together and have the great Senior season he look once destined for, and time for Keith Mumphrey to establish himself as more than just a possession option.  Beyond those three, as Coach Dantonio confirmed earlier this week, there will be opportunities for more than a half dozen players to make an impact on the field.  Talent is not short in supply, but depending on how fast the starters begin the year, opportunities may be.

Perhaps too much attention was paid to MSU’s Quarterback play in 2012, but that’s understandable considering how it all ended with Connor Cook jump starting the Offense late in the dramatic Bowl Win over TCU.  The fact is, however, without Andrew Maxwell’s performance against Indiana and Wisconsin last fall, the Spartans wouldn’t have been bowling a thing.  Yet, 2013 promised a fresh start, competition within the position, and hopefully a boost in performance this year.  No matter who starts against Western (Maxwell) and who starts in the coming Bowl Game (still largely unknown), MSU will have to get more out of its Quarterback play under new position Coach Brad Salem.  MSU must get a good look at all three veterans over the first three weeks.

Look for Andrew Maxwell to immediately make quicker and better decisions with an entire year of game experience under his belt.  If we don’t, get ready to work on a nickname for either Tyler O’Connor or Connor Cook to avoid the inevitable name confusion that will erupt between them because it’s simply not plausible yet to see Damion Terry as a True Freshmen leapfrogging both of those guys.  If all goes well for Maxwell, the only QB competition of note during the first three weeks will be among the backups fighting to solidify the #2 before making the trip to South Bend.

Defense

Not long ago the Big Ten Network (emphasis on the) aired the 2007 game versus Northwestern.  You remember that one, don’t you?  That was the OT thriller in which the Spartan Defense made C.J. Bacher look like John Elway and Joe Montana combined in what may have been the best QB performance in Spartan Stadium history (520 yards, 5 TD).  I came across it and stayed with it for a few minutes, just to let the reality soak in because at that point, many Spartan fans were convinced that Pat Narduzzi was in over his head and just couldn’t cut it in the Big Ten.  Where are those opinions now?

Contrast the feeling after that loss with Spartan Nation’s current optimism and expectancy for 2013.  The Snarlin’ Narduzzi Defense is arguably playing at the highest level in the Post-Duffy era, with many of those doubters from ’07 now completely convinced that no team will find the End Zone more than twice in any single game this year, and screaming all week that Western won’t even hit double digits on Friday night.  Maybe they’ll even complete a shutout.  So taking in a few moments to reflect on a legitimate low point for this Defense only served as a proud reflection for how far the unit has come.  MSU is now among the national models for how to defend the field.  Whether it’s stopping a Spread Attack or taking away an opponent’s perceived strength, many in College Football try to follow the Spartan Dawgs’ lead.

In 2013 they’ve made no secret that they want to create more turnovers.  Turnovers tend to come in bunches, as they did at times during Dantonio’s best seasons.  With one of the best Secondary groups in the country, many teams may try to dink and dunk their way around the Spartan D, putting a sharp group of Linebackers and potentially explosive players up front in position to make their mark.  With a little more of a pass rush out of the front four and maybe a few new Narduzzi crafted blitzes, MSU can really improve their turnover margin, and with it their overall win total.

The Defense is so good from top to bottom with many solid and star level players surrounding Max Bullough, there really is no reason to go through the entire list of characters that you already know.  But do look for a relatively underappreciated Marcus Rush to get more recognition and “run” from the media as a guy who’s been a bigger contributor than many people realized over the past few years.  To you and I it will be far from a surprise, but if Rush can find another gear to unleash in 2013, he’s bound to become the unit’s next big star.

Special Teams

MSU has one of the most recognized kicking games in Big Ten and NCAA history.  From the highest paid punter in today’s NFL (Brandon Fields) to the highest scoring player in NFL history (Morten Andersen), standards around the Spartan kicking game will always be high.  MSU knows what to expect from potential All-American Punter Mike Sadler, and will need that level of performance again if they are to make a run at championships.  Hopefully Sadler won’t be needed as much as he was in 2012, but with such giant question marks on the Offensive side of the ball, he certainly may be.

The Place Kicker position was not easy to come by for Senior Kevin Muma.  Muma, who’s been inconsistent in the past, could have lost either kicking job this off season.  Instead, he withstood the pressure of a top Freshmen recruit in Michael Geiger and a decorated Red-Shirt Freshmen Kevin Cronin.  It’s a good sign for this team that the Senior Muma raised his game to win both kicking jobs.  Now it’s his time to add ink a legacy to the MSU kicking history books.  As we discussed before Boise St. last year, Dan Conroy would often be in position to make or break the 2012 Spartans because of their Offensive inexperience and issues.  Muma was there, and saw what happened.  2013 will be his chance to largely flip that script and be the hero to put MSU over the top in the close games that were missed out on in 2012.

The other thing to watch across this unit in the early weeks is the competition to return kicks and punts.  MSU needs somebody, anybody, to step forward and take the lead returning kicks and punts.  Spartan Nation was spoiled in Dantonio’s first year as Devin Thomas exploded as a true weapon.  At times 2012’s returners looked more like a threat than a difference maker.  There’s plenty of talent, and should be plenty of opportunities early in 2013 for a player or two to take hold of the important return positions.  A field position boost can only help the Offense as they figure out who can make plays over the season’s first three weeks.  They need dependable returners before hitting the road for Notre Dame.

Overall

In reality, the 2013 season should begin with three clear wins for Spartan Football.  The final scores of those wins won’t matter as much as how the Spartans play.  MSU needs to answer questions, solve problems, and solidify roles as much as possible before boarding the bus for South Bend.  If they come together, MSU can win at South Bend and make the kind of season needed to regain the momentum lost in a sluggish 2012.  If things look shaky again on opening night and don’t really progress by Halftime of Youngstown St., it could be another disappointing season for the heart of Spartan Nation.

Friday’s assignment is therefore simple: get up big make a clear statement that 2012 is over, and 2013 is a completely different team.  That statement won’t be made if MSU struggles on Offense early, looks confused, or is only nursing something like a 13-0 lead going into the Half.  This team needs the type of start Dantonio led in 2007 against UAB, where they scored a Touchdown on their first 6 possessions.

This is not the time to get up a couple scores and then cool the jets by playing conservative, not a game to remind Big Ten fans of “Tressel Ball.”  Mark Dantonio and company should leave that traditional and at times merciful approach in the past for good.  It should not reappear at any point on the 2013 schedule, or for the remainder of the Dantonio era.  It’s time to leave no doubt within the program and across the entire College Football landscape (the fact is, perception matters) that 2012 was a complete aberration and that moving forward, this program will keep their foot on the gas and chase it for all 60 minutes of each game.

2013 Big Ten Predictions

Ohio St.                11-1

It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Bucks win the Big Ten this year, but it would if they run the table and or win the National Title.  They’re not the total package quite yet, but may be in 2014.  Urban Meyer therefore isn’t far off from where Tressel had the Bucks on an almost annual basis.

Nebraska             10-2

2012 couldn’t have ended worse for Bo Pelini and his Huskers.  Their face-plant in the final games probably cost Pelini an SEC gig, leaving him with a super charged Offense and “who knows?” on Defense.  A September matchup with UCLA should give us an indication how they’ll trend for the year.  But four big ones in November before the Corn Bowl against Iowa should determine whether they’ll have a special year.

 Michigan St.        10-2

Two bye weeks help when you’re trying to reboot an Offense completely.  Special Teams and Defense should be among the league’s best if they get more consistency out of the Place Kicker.  The schedule is built for a nice bounce back effort if the Offense can progress even just a little.

Wisconsin            8-4

Breaking in a new Head Coach usually provides a slight bump in an overall win total, but Gary Andersen has done a good job of managing expectations for a team with uncertainty at Quarterback and elsewhere.  The Badgers again enjoy a favorable “easy division” schedule, but there could be concern for the future.

Northwestern     7-5

Perhaps Pat Fitzgerald’s most talented Wildcat bunch is still a year or so away from being able to compete for championships, even though they’ll feature the most unique Offense in the league.  Until they’ve proven they can stop someone on Defense when they need to, they’ll fall short of getting over the hump.

Michigan             7-5

This could be the low point of the Brady Hoke era.  There’s youth all over the field and good prospects filling up the pipe line, but this schedule isn’t overly friendly and the Blue could be looking at a 5-loss season.  If teams like Indiana have a chance to get Michigan, they’d better get them now or it may be a while before they do again.

Iowa      5-7

The Hawks were awful in 2012, and it could get ugly opening up with Northern Illinois.  Though things appear to have settled down in Iowa City over the summer, unless they find some talent and fast it could be a long time before they contend again.

Indiana                5-7

 Hoosiers hold expectations for improvement again this year, yet 2013 may make you wonder why.  It’s still not clear if Indiana University will ever invest what’s needed to produce a competitive program again.  Kevin Wilson may look no more ready to be a Head Coach in the Big Ten that he did last year.

Minnesota           4-8

Jerry Kill’s health remains a huge concern until proven otherwise, though there are encouraging medical reports.  We should expect to see progress in the Gophers running attack, a Kill trademark, but it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to furnish the depth needed to really compete in the “M, N, Iowa” Division yet.

Purdue                 3-9

The “Stache of Hope is gone,” hopefully taking a ruinous injury bug with him, but it’s unclear whether the Boilers will really change.  They didn’t get their top choice as a Head Coach, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t get the right one long term.  The new staff must consistently find “diamonds in the rough” if they’re ever going to find the depth to hang with the leagues heavy hitters.

Illinois                  2-10

Unless something changes, you’d have to expect the Illini to struggle indefinitely.  Their Athletic Department appears to have major ongoing funding and directional issues.  It doesn’t help that Tim Beckman reminds folks of Tim Brewster.

Penn St.

They have no business fielding a team again this year.  The NCAA blew it completely by not giving PSU a two year Death Penalty.  Can’t punish the kids, you say?  Well you can’t punish the culture that facilitated the Sandusky horror in any other way.  The NCAA didn’t, the Big Ten didn’t, and the culture hasn’t suffered at all.  They’ve simply moved on.  A lot of people are disappointed in the NCAA for a lot of things, but in my entire lifetime as a fan, their failure to punish the culture at Penn St. is the biggest.

Notre Dame        8-4

Last year was a make or break year for Brian Kelly, and man did it make.  After barely stumbling past Purdue, they spring boarded off the victory at MSU all the way to the National Title Game.  The Irish seemingly got every single call, break, and replay angle they could in 2012.  But gone for 2013 is their Quarterback of the future, Everett Golson, so Kelly is left to scramble for a QB once again.    The schedule is front loaded, with only 2 sure W’s before the middle of October, so look for a late Irish run.

P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)

  1. As Major League Baseball and other sports leagues fumble around trying to figure out how to implement Instant Replay, the Big Ten did it right the first time.  As you recall, the Leaders and Legends broke out a sensible across-the-board method to review each play, which evolved from there.  The next step is clearly to add an Off Field Official, key word being Official.  Keep leading and innovating, Big Ten, because implementing replay has raised the competitive integrity of your product while others continue to hack it around in the rough.
  2. How smart does John Elway look right now for essentially moving Tim Tebow for Peyton Manning?  In arguably the smartest move of Elway’s professional career, Elway got rid of a player who simply cannot consistently play at the level of a starting Quarterback in the NFL and replaced him with a Hall of Famer who bounced back with some cutting edge medical technology.
  3. The ESPN led College Football media continues to talk about Johnny Manziel taking money for autographs, and College Football fans continue to not care.  It’s just another example of the occasionally wide disconnect between the media and fans.  Thankfully the media has never been less relevant.
Jon Schopp is a senior writer for Spartan Nation across all platforms. Jon joined Spartan Nation in the spring of 2009, and has since written extensively on MSU Football and Basketball. He is known primarily for the Spartan Nation Weekly column. He practices law in Atlanta, GA. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter @JPSpartan.


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