2001 NCAA Football Preview
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Michigan State Spartans (2000: 5-6)

The following team preview is provided by Blue Ribbon. For the nation's most comprehensive look at this and all Division I-A teams, be sure to order the 2001 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, on sale now at 1-800-775-2518.

 

Coach and program

In his year and change as the head coach at Michigan State, Bobby Williamsí life has pretty much followed the script of most episodes of VH-1ís Behind the Music.

If you have cable TV, you know the drill: 1.) Man is on top of the world (Williams after getting the Michigan State job). 2.) His star rises even higher (Williams wins his first-ever college game over Steve Spurrier and the Florida Gators in the Citrus Bowl and the Spartans end up No. 5 in the final polls. Williams then lands lots of top-shelf recruits. 3.) Williams is a still a big hit the following September as the Spartans won the first three games, including a win over Notre Dame.

But as anyone who watches VH-1 can tell you, step 4 is a killer. Thatís when everything comes crashing down. Suddenly, in fact. And thatís what happened to Williams in the last two months of the 2000 football season.

Michigan State suffered from inconsistent quarterback play as freshman Jeff Smoker was forced to play sooner than expected when projected starter Ryan Van Dyke got hurt. The final result was a 5-6 season, quite a comedown from the 10-2 mark in 1999.

But like the bands profiled on "Behind the Music," Williams is hoping for a revival rather than being deemed a one-hit wonder. In 2001, the Spartans will use a version of the spread offense, often employing a three-wide receiver set, all of which should take the heat off his battering ram of a tailback, junior All-America candidate T.J. Duckett.

If the spread offense -- todayís cure-all which has worked wonders at such schools as Oklahoma, Northwestern, Purdue, Clemson and others -- clicks in East Lansing and MSU can improve its pass rush and special teams play, Williams and Co. could get themselves a bowl berth at seasonís end.

Offense

Before the 2000 season, Van Dyke was anxious to take over the team. But he injured his right thumb in the first quarter of the season opener against Marshall last season.

Even now, Van Dyke said his throwing hand isnít completely healthy because of calluses built up on his bone.

Smoker appeared in nine of 11 games, completing 103 of 197 passes (52.3 percent) for 1,365 yards, six touchdowns and seven interceptions. Van Dyke completed 70 of 122 throws (57.4 percent) for 796 yards, four touchdowns and nine interceptions.

ďIf we get down to game week and itís still there [no clear starter], weíre going to have to play both of them and then see how they play in a game situation. If today was Sept. 8, Jeff would start the game, but then at some point in time, Ryan would come in.Ē

With better wide receivers and an offense designed to spread the field and give him more running lanes a la Northwesternís Damien Anderson, Duckett should gain between 1,500 and 2,000 yards rushing, if he stays healthy. He was slowed by groin and shoulder injuries late in the 2000 season and missed the end of spring ball after undergoing minor shoulder surgery, but heíll be fine by August.

Williams believes his 2001 collection of wide receivers -- sophomore Charles Rogers (6-4, 207), junior college transfer B.J. Lovett (6-4, 200), returning sophomore Marcus Waters (6-4, 233) and returning senior Herb Haygood (6-0, 191) -- will give his team a more balanced attack.

ďI feel we can have that St. Louis [Rams] type offense where we have three wide receiver sets,Ē Rogers said.

This nearly all-new offensive line figures to be led by sophomore center Brian Ottney (6-6, 306), who looks like a star in the making.

Defense and special teams

This fall, getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks is one of the top things on Williamsí to-do list. The reason? The Spartans were last in the Big Ten with 17 sacks a year ago. The Spartans should improve significantly on that number, led by seniors Josh Shaw (6-3, 280) and Nick Myers (6-2, 263).

Converted tight end Ivory McCoy (6-4, 232) will also put some heat on the quarterback from his strong-side linebacker spot.

Linebacker T.J. Turner is gone after being one of the last players picked in last Aprilís NFL draft (239th overall by the New England Patriots in a 246-player draft). He will be missed, as will Drew Young, a starting linebacker last season who left the team for medical reasons.

Despite the personnel losses, Williams and his staff are smiling because senior middle linebacker Josh Thornhill (6-2, 234) will be one of the nationís best at his position this fall.

Returning senior Cedric Henry (5-1, 180) who had five interceptions and a team-best 22 pass deflections in 2000, will be joined by fellow senior DeMario Suggs (5-11, 190) as the Spartansí starting corners.

Special teams needs improvement in 2001. After losing top-notch kicker Paul Edinger to the Chicago Bears, his understudy David Schaefer (5-10, 197) wasnít nearly as effective a weapon as his predecessor. Schaefer was 11-of-17 on field-goal attempts and missed three of his 21 extra point tries in 2000.

Bottom line

Despite the lack of a deep threat, an unsettled quarterback situation, a non-existent pass rush and spotty special teams play, the Spartans would have gone bowling if they could have beaten Penn State in the 2000 season finale. Instead, they were hammered, 42-23, to close out a 5-6 season.

So which team is the real Michigan State -- the one that won a school-record 10 games in 1999 or the team that won half as many in 2000? The answer in 2000 is probably somewhere in between.

The offensive line is young, but if Williams can get any kind of quarterback play, then MSUís offense should be much improved. In fact, if the quarterback play improves and both lines hold up, then Michigan State could win eight or nine games and make a trip to a big-time bowl.

 

   
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