Coach: John L. Smith (3rd season, 13-12) 2004 record: 5-7 Big Ten finish: 4-4 (t-5th) 2004 I-A offensive rankings: Rushing: 10th (238.5 ypg) Passing: 51st (221.5 ypg) 2004 I-A defensive rankings: Rushing: 73rd (172.4 ypg) Passing: 54th (209.0 ypg)
at Notre Dame
at Ohio State
Depth Chart: Offense
8 returning starters in red
Depth Chart: Defense
5 returning starters in red
David Herron Jr.
Sir Darean Adams
To order your 2005 Athlon Sports annual and receive $1 off plus free shipping courtesy of SI.com, click here.
When John L. Smith arrived at Michigan State, he said his past teams were ready to compete for the conference championship in year three, and he expected the same progression with the Spartans.
Entering year three in East Lansing, Smith isn't backing away from the three-year forecast, but he acknowledges that good luck, good health and strong player development will be needed for the Spartans to become a surprise contender in the Big Ten.
A bowl bid is possible, if not probable, if the Spartans can keep multi-threat junior quarterback Drew Stanton healthy and on an upswing.
"When you have a quarterback like that, it gives you a chance," Smith said.
Smith said the same things about Jeff Smoker prior to the 2003 season, when the Spartans posted a surprising eight-win year. In year two under Smith, the Spartans went 4-4 in the Big Ten, but a 1-3 non-conference record left Michigan State out of the bowl picture for the third time in five years.
The Spartans return eight starters from a unit that ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten in total offense with 460.0 yards per game.
Stanton improved his pocket passing and accuracy during the spring. "Last year we used his legs," said offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin. "He has the capabilities to use an arm now. So we can be a multi-threat with that guy."
Michigan State will miss home run sprinter DeAndra Cobb, but the Spartans return grinders Jason Teague (688 yards) and Jehuu Caulcrick (619 yards).
Michigan State has nice depth at receiver with seven players who have had at least 20 catches in a season, including Teague. Jerramy Scott, who led the team with 39 catches, is a shifty target who can get downfield. Basketball power forward Matt Trannon (36 catches) is making steady progress toward becoming a mismatch player. Kyle Brown is the fastest of the bunch and was the spring's best receiver.
Three starters and a trusted reliever return from a line that allowed the fewest sacks in the Big Ten and helped Michigan State average 5.7 yards per carry. Left tackle Stefon Wheeler has routinely silenced the league's best pass rushers. Center Chris Morris is a tough technician and perhaps the best in the Big Ten.
The Spartans must cure their penchant for giving up big plays on defense and find four players to provide panic-free coverage in the secondary.
Michigan State does not have a shut-down cornerback. Jaren Hayes is the Spartans' best coverage man, but he was spotty last year in his first season at the position. He will be a year better, but shortcomings will remain. Ashton Watson added 10 good pounds and is more physical. He has not been a quality coverage man in the past but is coming off his best spring. Greg Cooper is developing nicely at free safety after two years as the fifth defensive back.
Inside linebackers David Herron and Kaleb Thornhill are good and getting better. Herron, Maurice Clarett's blocking back in high school, has unleashed surprising ability as he has gained knowledge and experience on defense.
The Spartans plan to use Eric Smith at bandit, which is a hybrid linebacker/safety position that the coaches used successfully at Louisville. Smith was a two-year starter at strong safety.
Clifton Ryan is poised to become a playmaker at stud (strong-side) defensive end. He combines the quickness of a former linebacker with a 400-pound bench press.
Brandon McKinney is a quality noseguard, but he hasn't reached the all-conference potential coaches expected of him.
Placekicker John Goss was accurate in the spring, with range out to 50 yards. Punter Brandon Fields averaged 47.9 yards per punt last year and has improved his hang time.
The explosive Spartans are capable of becoming a spoiler, and then some. But defense and depth are at least a year away from establishing the week-to-week consistency necessary to contend for a Big Ten title.