In year two of John L. Smith's rebuilding job, the goals remain unchanged -- notch a winning season, go to a bowl game and compete for a championship.
Big Ten title contention is unlikely, but Smith expects continued success.
"It's vital that you step up and win and go to another bowl game," Smith said. "And that's possible."
Smith no longer has to convince his players they can win. With 13 returning starters, dangerous receivers, an attacking defense and a nice assortment of linemen, Michigan State should be in the bowl picture. However, major questions at quarterback and running back soften preseason expectations.
"The defense is going to have to carry us for at least the first half of the season, until the offense matures," Smith said. "It's hard to put any pressure on that offensive group just because there are so many young guys over there, and we are very thin everywhere."
OffenseSophomore Drew Stanton and redshirt freshman Stephen Reaves are competing to replace Jeff Smoker's 3,395 yards passing.
"It took Jeff until halfway through the season before the light went on," Smith said. "I think the light will go on for one of these guys at some point this year."
Stanton sustained a knee injury while playing on punt coverage in the Alamo Bowl and saw limited reps in the spring. He has an edge in accuracy, but the coaches want him to be less mechanical and quicker with his delivery. The left-handed Reaves has a quick release, good zip and a swashbuckling nature.
Tyrell Dortch and Jaren Hayes moved to defense, taking their combined 888 yards rushing with them. Kickoff return demon DeAndra Cobb and bullish redshirt freshman Jehuu Caulcrick bring horsepower to the running back position. However, they are unproven.
"You don't want to be a team with running back by committee, but we may have to be that again," Smith said.
Michigan State returns five players who had at least 25 catches, including dangerous slot man Agim Shabaj, tall targets Aaron Alexander and Matt Trannon and blossoming deep threat Kyle Brown. Tight end Jason Randall is a strong blocker. He is a stiff but dependable receiver.
The offensive line should be functional. Two starters return -- left tackle Stefon Wheeler and center Chris Morris. Morris, a quick technician, is improving rapidly. Wheeler is reliable.
DefenseThe front four is potentially terrific. Second team All-Big Ten selection Clifford Dukes moves from strong-side defensive end to rush end. His productivity should increase. Coaches expected nose tackle Brandon McKinney to contend for all-star status last year, but he was lost for the season with a foot injury. If healthy and fit, he will be a force.
Inside linebackers Seth Mitchell and Ronald Stanley are experienced and dependable. "Stanley has been all over the field," Smith said. "He had a great spring."
Cornerback Roderick Maples is showing signs of shedding his inconsistency. "He should be a guy to take over and just have a great year," Smith said. "I would really expect that. I expect Hayes on the other side to step up and be the guy."
Eric Smith developed into a tackling machine at strong safety. But shoulder and knee injuries have cast doubt over his dependability. Jason Harmon is capable at either safety position.
SpecialistsDave Rayner was 22-of-29 on field goals. Punter Brandon Fields averaged 46.4 yards per attempt. Smith said the Spartans will have improved speed in the kicking game.
Final AnalysisIn order to get seven wins (bowl eligibility) or more, Michigan State needs quick development at quarterback and a pleasant surprise at running back. Without them, the Spartans' talented receivers and spread offense will have trouble getting in gear.
If the Spartans get improved coverage in the secondary, as Smith expects, then Michigan State will be able to increase defensive pressure and perhaps be among the conference's leaders in sacks and turnover margin again. That's the plan. It needs to come to fruition while a young offense matures.