Coming off the 2013 Big Ten and Rose Bowl Championship season, the Spartans host the Jacksonville St. Gamecocks in their traditional Friday night of Labor Day weekend opener at 7:30 on the Big Ten Network.
No unit improved more during the course of a Mark Dantonio season than the Offense did last year.Â They went from an early season hindrance to the ultimate difference maker come post season play.Â Yet, thereâ€™s still a little sense of uncertainty as 2014 is set to begin.Â Will they pick up where they left off, firing on all cylinders under the command of Connor Cook?Â Or will they come out more sluggish and stumble around like we saw often during the first half of last season?Â That is the most important question about the 2014 Spartans, and it will be answered quickly with the trip to Oregon next weekend.
Friday nightâ€™s dress rehearsal (if you will) is not going to determine how well they travel west and show up in front of the entire nation at Oregon next weekend, but that doesnâ€™t mean they can afford to come out and run the ball towards the middle of the line 50 times just to get off the field with a win.Â Mark Dantonio went further at his Press Conference the other day by calling Friday night a â€œstatement game.â€Â While we shouldnâ€™t expect to see much from the Offense in terms of flashy plays and game plan ideas, we should see crisp execution at a high enough level to produce more than six touchdowns for the evening.
Assuming things go as planned, Spartan starters should begin to yield to backups sometime around the Half.Â Thereâ€™s plenty of talent to go around, and ample youth that needs live game reps.Â Many are no doubt looking forward to following the backup Quarterback battle between Tyler Oâ€™Connor and Damion Terry.Â With Connor Cook poised for a potentially monster 2014, this yearâ€™s Quarterback competition will be a lot more fun to watch.Â We will hopefully see meaningful action from backups during as many as six games this season, starting Friday night.
The Spartans improved their Offensive Line play as much as any other area during 2013 play.Â The unit that held the Offense back in 2012 became a real strength and developed some actual playing depth during the turnaround.Â As Co-Coordinator Jim Bollman told Spartan Nation at the teamâ€™s recent media day, thereâ€™s a benefit to playing more than five Offensive Lineman on a regular basis as long as the communication and execution hold to a consistent level.Â He also pointed out that players actually practice differently during the week when they know thereâ€™s a chance they will play on Saturday, and are not just filling a spot on the practice field without a chance to take any live snaps on gameday.
Before 2013 Coach D said that the Wide Receiver depth went about a half dozen deep.Â Throughout the season, as the Offense improved, his thoughts were proven to be true.Â He told Spartan Nation earlier this week that at this point, they have a main playing group of six Wide Outs, and those that make plays will stay in.Â At the same time, he confirmed thereâ€™s more than just that main group of six that could eventually be involved in 2014.Â With that much talent and depth, itâ€™s easy to see that Dantonio and the Offense will be counting on the Wide Out to produce early and often this year.
Tony Lippett, Jeremy Langford, and of course Connor Cook all made individual in-season jumps as well.Â It will be interesting to follow each of them as they feel a large microscope on their early 2014 performances.Â Spartan Nation and now a national audience is curious to see who keeps up the level of play they ended 2013 with.Â Should injury strike or a player lose his mojo, depth is not a serious concern for this unit.Â Playing time, on the other hand, may be.Â This should go down as one of Dantonioâ€™s best Offensive units by the yearâ€™s end.
Co-Coordinators Warner and Bollman had this unit running hot at the end of 2013.Â If they can pick up about where they left off at the Rose Bowl and take it through 2014, this team will be a real contender for the sportâ€™s inaugural Final Four, eyeing a return trip to the Rose Bowl.Â All of that is far off from the final week of August, but far more possible than itâ€™s been around here for decades.
All eyes early this year will be on the middle of Pat Narduzziâ€™s 2014 Defense.Â Max Bullough had arguably the best mental game of any MSU Middle Linebacker in history, and will no doubt be difficult to replace.Â Yet, as we saw in the Rose Bowl, it can be done.Â Replacing Bullough on a unit he had led for 13 previous games, for only 60 minutes, is not nearly the task of replacing him on a whole new team.Â That process started during winter workouts and will continue through Friday night and into next week.Â Whoever starts, or more importantly plays the most in the Middle will be closely evaluated by a national audience next Saturday at Oregon.Â Fortunately for this Defense, there are plenty of viable candidates.
This week it is important for the competitors at that position to show that they have the fundamentals covered, that they are organized, and that they can lead a Defense before the snap.Â Putting the other 10 defenders in their best position was probably the biggest contribution that Bullough made to this team, which may not have shown up on a stat sheet in any other place than the final score.Â If the Spartan Defense keeps Jacksonville St. under two scores (aka 16 points), it would be an expected result and taken as a good sign that they will be ready for Oregon.Â They will need their fine Linebacker group to be at the top of their game to take care of business in a top ten road environment, so look for many players to rotate in and out of the lineup.
Other than the Linebacker shuffle, this Defense should shuttle in and shuttle out top flight talent all over the field.Â So sit back, relax, and learn some new names and numbers to become fans of.Â The Defensive cupboard is stocked full of NFL potential and â€œhigh-majorâ€ College talent.Â Many of them have benefitted from the opportunity to Red-Shirt, which almost always pays off in the end.Â As competition for playing time has increased, so has the Defenseâ€™s dominance of its opponents.Â If they remain dominant again in 2014, there should be additional All American and post season individual honors to come.
This unit has earned national respect bit by bit, year by year.Â Given the current national perception that the Big Ten is a weak league, and that the Spartans have sometimes played a relatively soft non-conference schedule, there has been some reluctance to anoint the Spartan Dawgs as tops in the national kennel.Â Make no mistake, Pat Narduzzi and company know the opportunity that is coming their way next Saturday, and may well rev their engines a touch against Jacksonville St. night just to the Ducks know theyâ€™re getting ready for it.
By now Spartan Nation has become used to big things from its Special Teams units.Â This yearâ€™s kicking game looks as strong as ever as Mike Sadler returns for his final year of Punting and off field comedy, and Michael Geiger tees it up for his Sophomore campaign.Â Anything less than one of the best kicking performances in the Conference this year would come as a surprise.Â While Sadler and Geiger have proven to be effective, they should not be counted on nearly as much this year because of the growth of the Offense in 2013, and the fact that so many key players are back this year.
If you remember back to the darker points of 2013, the Spartans Punt Return game was not impressive.Â A.J. Sims looked overwhelmed early, and the return game was not quite ready to return at a championship level.Â As the season developed, the Spartans discovered the many talents of R.J. Shelton, and Macgarrett Kings began to develop as a punt return threat.Â Shelton is the teamâ€™s best candidate to get the kind of number of touches that Devin Thomas had in 2007.Â This team is so deep, however, that we may see other guys get opportunities, especially in the â€œsofterâ€ points of the schedule.Â Overall, Shelton could conceivably take over both return positions and lead from the front, but Kings and Sims are the only players listed at Punt Return on the Spartans initial depth chart.
Shelton has elite speed at this level of the game and a great chance to have a couple monster seasons in Green and White, hopefully avoiding the mistake of coming out too early for the NFL that has crippled a few Wide Receiver careers.Â Not that anyone questioned his talents before Tuesday, but his name even popped up at the Boundary Cornerback position as the third man deep.Â Part of that move may have been strategic, to boost the amount of attention on what may be a budding big star.
Count the return games are among the most interesting to follow as 2014 begins because itâ€™s not clear if Shelton explode, Kings will step up and command the punt return lead, or if Mark Dantonio and staff may prefer to find a identify a specialist or two for these roles.Â As has been the case in the Dantonio era, this unit should be a strength of this Spartan team, but expected to be tighter and more productive early this season. Â By the end of the year, they could be the best and most explosive Special Teams Dantonio has ever led.
After the eight month Rose Bowl honeymoon (or hangover if you prefer), itâ€™s time for Spartan Football to move forward.Â Itâ€™s not necessarily time to move on, because they cannot afford to forget what transformed them from an average team to a Big Ten and Rose Bowl champion during 2013.Â Thereâ€™s little doubt that Friday night is practically an exhibition game in preparation of the most anticipated inter-conference game in the sport this year.Â Fridayâ€™s final score wonâ€™t matter as much as how good the Spartans look. They need to look fresh, focused, and hungry.Â Beyond that, theyâ€™ll have to remain patient for the coming high stakes Saturday afternoon showdown at famed Autzen Stadium.Â This program is more than mature enough now to realize that blowing out a 1-AA school to flex their muscles is not the main point of this type of game.Â Getting their feet wet and working through first game jitters while preparing with a purpose for Oregon, is.
Many players should see substantial time Friday night, affording Coaches a boat load of future coaching opportunities to teach the youth over the coming weeks of practice.Â As the starters leave the game for the night and newcomers hit the field, the programâ€™s deeper talent will be revealed.Â Spartan Nation should be left satisfied and excited about the long term future days of Spartan Football.Â Thanks to Coach D and each of the players, coaches, and contributors that helped rebuild the foundation of Spartan Football to where it is today, the future looks like a really fine present.
Big Ten Season Predictions
Over the past five seasons I have been very accurate in predicting and also pretty far off a couple times.
Michigan St.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 11-1
Home schedule is packed but favorable, and conference road trips are not that imposing. If their Offense picks up where they left off last post season, they should be playing for a slot in the inaugural College Football Playoff after another Big Ten Championship. Replacing Max Bulloughâ€™s mental game will not be easy on Defense, but there is actually more talent coming into the playing rotation than there was lost after last year.
Ohio St.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 11-1
This was supposed to be the year Urban Meyer led the Buckeyes to a National Championship, but that looks impossible now that Braxton Miller has been lost for the year. The schedule, however, is still not that imposing. If the Bucks get past Virginia Tech at home in game two, there should be plenty of time to adequately prepare for November 1st at Spartan Stadium. Watch out for a scare from Cincinnati, and until we see these new look Bucks, itâ€™s hard to be too sure of what Urban Meyer really has.
MichiganÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 9-3
The schedule set up for a big time bounce back from Brady Hokeâ€™s â€œbottoming outâ€ 2013 season. The Corn and Blue have been helped even more in recent times by the academic scandal that could erode Notre Dame this fall and the Buckeyes loss of Braxton Miller for the year.Â Expect an inflated regular season record and a humbling loss in a Bowl Game down in the sunshine state.
Penn St.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 6-6
This should be the first Penn St. Football season coming off a two year NCAA death penalty, but sadly that did not happen. Now James Franklin is on campus and quickly talking up a storm, trying to position Happy Valley as a regional rallying point.Â Heâ€™s got a future NFL Quarterback to work with, but has been pointing to team wide depth issues since the day he took the job.
IndianaÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 5-7
Kevin Wilson has shown signs of breaking through in past seasons, but the Hoosiersâ€™ Defense has remained so porous that producing a regular winner there still seems mostly improbable. Unless that Defense is exponentially better than itâ€™s been recently, Indiana will out score some teams and fail to stop others along the way. I wouldnâ€™t bet on them making a Bowl trip, once again. If they can sure up that Defense to even an average Big Ten level, you may be talking about a team that contenders wonâ€™t want to play.
RutgersÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 4-8
No school in the current era of realignment may benefit more from swapping conferences than the state university of New Jersey. They built on that momentum by making the coaching hire of the off season when Ralph Friedgen was announced as Offensive Coordinator. He may be one of the top three in the league already. But just because many Big Ten teams in the past have wrangled eventual college greats out of the Garden State, donâ€™t count on Rutgers becoming competitive right away. And watch out for cramps early this fall in Rutgersâ€™ stadium, right?
MarylandÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 3-9
It looked like the Terps were set to hire Mike Leach around New Yearâ€™s Day of 2011, and then something happened. Randy Edsall is a total of 13-24 at College Park since taking over instead of Leach, and may not be up to the task of taking all of those different Under Armour uniform combinations and producing a competitive team in the Big Ten East. They may not win a league game for a while, but some people think they could actually be a surprise.
NebraskaÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 9-3
No school is set to benefit more from the ridiculous realignment of this conference than the Huskers. Nebraska needs something big if they hope to morph back to the power program it once was in the last century. Ameer Abdullah is back as the leagueâ€™s best Running Back, and Tommy Armstrong appears to be the new QB taking over for the graduated Taylor Martinez. Bo Pelini contends his Defensive Line is among the nationâ€™s best, but weâ€™ll need to check the final paper work on that one before agreeing. I donâ€™t know how much we will be able to tell about this team until the post season games are all finished.
WisconsinÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 9-3
Gary Andersen surprised some last year by winning 9 games, but new Head Coaches often get a first year win total bump and Bucky took that as far as it could go before a slight letdown of a Bowl effort against South Carolina. Now Wisconsin is a little unsure about its Quarterbacking, Brett Bielemaâ€™s best Badgers are starting to graduate out of the building, and a new era is going to emerge in Mad Town. Thanks in large part to playing in a soft division, the Badgers should return to a decent Bowl with hopes of winning one for the first time since 2009. They would shock the country if they beat LSU late this Saturday night.
IowaÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 8-4
The nation slept on Iowa before last yearâ€™s Citrus Bowl, and the Hawks hung deep into the game with LSU. In fact, they had chances to sneak out what wouldâ€™ve been a monster win that wouldâ€™ve propelled them nicely into 2014. Iowa benefitted from that pro-style matchup with â€œthe hat,â€ and played well enough for some positives to have carried over into the new year. Jake Rudock may be the best Quarterback in the Big Ten, and if he plays like it the Hawkeyes could surprise the entire country again. A fast start could lead to 10 wins. The opportunity is there, itâ€™s not clear if enough talent is.
NorthwesternÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 5-7
Nobody face planted harder than the Wildcats last year after blazing to a 5-0 start and going toe to toe with Ohio St. in the national Saturday night game. After a couple key calls went against them, their seasonâ€™s hopes began to evaporate into the Evanston air. It was not a pleasant fall for the Cats. After being a little too hyped in recent years, Northwesternâ€™s reputation took a major hit and until they do something to reverse that, they will be expected to start fast and fold late on a regular basis. This year their trip to Penn St. should indicate what kind of season they will have.
IllinoisÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 4-8
Tim Beckman is 6-18 at Illinois and itâ€™s hard to know if thatâ€™s a good or bad record in that job. Resources seem to be an ongoing battle at a school that continues to have a hard time deciding if they want to compete at a high level in two major sports. As serious college sports fans know, thatâ€™s not an easy task and there are not many schools in the nation that can do it. It remains to be seen whether Beckman is the answer in Champaign, and whether Illinois can be a serious player in football any time soon.
MinnesotaÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 4-8
Before last season began there was optimism that Head Coach Jerry Killâ€™s epilepsy was under control and might no longer be an issue. Unfortunately, it was a real issue again and will remain a concern until proven otherwise for an entire season. Thereâ€™s no doubt Kill is getting some of the best care in the country, but at some point his medical condition may require a change. While Kill was battling last season off the field, his Gophers were getting better as the year went on. This year looks to be much tougher though. Making a Bow Game would be a big accomplishment.
PurdueÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 2-10
The Boilers may not be the worst team in the Big Ten this year, but they probably will have the worst record. They seem to have Quarterback talent and not much else that can compete anywhere near a highly competitive level right now. The modern evolution of major college football has not been kind to Purdue. Long gone is the schematic advantage Joe Tiller once had over opponents, and long gone seem the Boilers regular winning ways.
Michigan State over Nebraska, earning a return trip to the Rose Bowl in the College Football Playoff
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thoughtâ€¦)
- The imbalance of the Big Tenâ€™s new Divisions has been obvious from the day it was announced.Â The theory appears to be something like, â€œletâ€™s create the most popular division in the sport, our version of the SEC West, and it will end up evaluating the entire league.â€Â Itâ€™s possible that the heavily stacked Big Ten East could do that, but I think it will do more harm to the Conference than it will to help it.Â The obvious fix was clear from the instant realignment was on the menu: place Michigan St. in the West.Â Not doing so could hurt Spartan Football in the long run. Who knows when the next round of expansion will occur, but hopefully the teams will be east of East Lansing, so the Spartans can move to the West, where they belong.
- Another NFL offseason has come and gone and we are left without HGH testing.Â The lack of HGH testing and a comprehensive PED testing program is the biggest story in football, if not in all professional sports. Â The longer the issue goes unaddressed, whoeverâ€™s fault it is, the more likely real damage to the sport will be done.Â It is in every football stakeholderâ€™s best interests to come up with an implement a testing policy immediately, but no one seems to event want to talk about it anymore.
- Iâ€™m so glad so few calls Spartan Stadium â€œThe Woodshedâ€ anymore. So thankful, am I.Â Let that sleeping dog lie for good, please.