Michigan State is coming off a disappointing 2009, one that saw them run the ball poorly, play awful pass defense and finish under .500.
Actually, though, the worst thing might have been an on-campus fight that resulted in player suspensions and dismissals.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is a throwback in that he likes a power running game and a defense that hits you in the mouth. That he had neither last season was especially bothersome - and the questions in those areas have carried over to this season.
Two things the Spartans have going for them is what should be a potent passing attack and a solid linebacker corps headed by All-America Greg Jones.
Here's a closer look at the Spartans.
THE SCHEME: This is a traditional two-back attack that likes to use the tight end and rarely gets fancy. Ideally, it's all about grinding foes with the run. Dantonio, whose background is on the defensive side of the ball, is an old-school coach with a conservative bent who likes to set up the pass with the run.
STAR POWER: Kirk Cousins emerged from a battle with Keith Nichol to become a solid quarterback in 2009. Cousins threw for 2,680 yards with 19 touchdowns and nine picks to give the Spartans the No. 2 aerial game (269.4 ypg) in the conference. Cousins finished as the No. 3 passer in the Big Ten and teems with potential, but needs to improve his accuracy.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman Bennie Fowler could play a big role in the wide receiver rotation. Fowler (6 feet 1/205) is a physical target who has a burst. He just needs to show more consistency in route-running and catching the ball.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Dantonio typically likes to rely on pounding opponents with a strong ground game. But the Spartans' rushing attack has struggled the past two seasons. In 2008, the ground game ranked No. 9 in the Big Ten (130.2 ypg) despite the presence of Javon Ringer. Last season, the Spartans were sixth in rushing (136.9 ypg). The line is looking for three new starters and coaches need junior G Joel Foreman to be a leader. It will help if sophomore RBs Larry Caper and Edwin Baker take the next step in their developments. Caper led the team with a paltry 468 yards (3.9 ypc) last season. How measly was that total? In 2009, Ringer paced the Spartans with 1,637 yards.
THE SCHEME: In the past, Michigan State played a 3-4 when it was in a nickel package. Look for the Spartans to play more 3-4 this season even on "rushing downs." Pat Narduzzi is a solid coordinator who one day will be a head coach.
STAR POWER: Is there a better linebacker in the nation than Greg Jones? He dallied with the notion of turning pro but opted to return to East Lansing for his senior season. Good for Sparty. Jones paced the Big Ten with 11.9 tackles per game last season, ranking third in the nation from his spot in the middle. Jones is a classic leader, a sideline-to-sideline terror who also relishes the tough play inside.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Touted true freshman William Gholston could make an impact at a hybrid linebacker/end position. He was a five-star recruit from Detroit Southeastern who some are comparing to - are you ready for this? - former Spartans icon Bubba Smith. Gholston (6-7/237) could be a terror off the edge and the type of talent who can give Michigan State the dominating defense it has been yearning for since the days of George Perles.
STRONGEST AREA: Jones anchors what may be the top linebacker corps in the Big Ten. His sidekick is Eric Gordon, a tough and active force on the strongside. On the weakside, speedy sophomore Chris Norman could become a big-timer; if his production matches his athleticism, the Spartans will be in great shape.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The defense has a lot to prove after struggling mightily in 2009. The biggest issue was stopping the pass. The Spartans had the worst pass defense in the Big Ten (267.6 ypg). Don't blame the pass rush, as Michigan State finished third in the Big Ten in sacks. The Spartans just had trouble covering and yielded too many big plays. Ss Marcus Hyde and Trenton Robinson especially floundered. A pass rusher must emerge with E Trevor Anderson gone. The staff is counting on Gholston and T Jerel Worthy setting the tone, and E Tyler Hoover and T Blake Treadwell need to emerge as key players. T Oren Wilson was a projected starter, but he has dropped out of school.
Michigan State will miss K Brett Swenson, who nailed a Big Ten-high 19 field goals in 2009. Swenson was one of the best kickers in school history. Kevin Muma is battling walk-on Dan Conroy for the job. The punting is in good hands with the return of Aaron Bates, who averaged 41.6 yards per boot. Martin will be one of the best return men in the Big Ten. He ran back a kickoff for a touchdown last season. The punt coverage was fine last season, but the kickoff coverage needs to improve.
There isn't a lot of heavy lifting, which means Michigan State could be a Big Ten contender. A visit from Notre Dame on Sept. 18 will be a good early-season yardstick. Five home games - and six of the first seven - kick off the schedule, meaning a fast start is likely. Michigan State needs to be at least 5-2 when it travels to Northwestern on Oct. 23. A four-game stretch from Oct. 9-30 will make or break Sparty: at Michigan, Illinois, at Northwestern and at Iowa. It hurts that Indiana isn't on the menu, but neither is Ohio State.
Dantonio has a lot on his plate as he tries to right a program coming off its first losing record in his three-season tenure in East Lansing. There was an ugly home loss to Central Michigan, a meltdown against Notre Dame, a confounding loss to Minnesota and a blowout defeat to Penn State. But perhaps worst of all, the program was rocked by a fight at a residence hall that resulted in several players being suspended and some leaving school. Michigan State needs to improve a rushing attack that was lacking in 2009, when the Spartans were too pass-heavy. The defense must focus on patching up what was the Big Ten's worst pass defense (267.6 ypg). The Spartans allowed a league-high 32 touchdown passes and had only six interceptions. Another area to watch: turnover margin. The Spartans' committed only 20 but generated a Big Ten-low 14 to finish 10th in the conference in turnover margin. That was a big reason Michigan State lost six games by 10 or fewer points. Still, there is hope because numerous starters return and there's a manageable schedule that has some believing Michigan State could be a contender for its first Big Ten crown since 1990.