Overview: The Spartans failed to reach 20 points in five of their last seven games in 2006. Michigan State loses quarterback Drew Stanton and three starting receivers, yet it still has a measure of optimism. Four starters return in the offensive line, and new coach Mark Dantonio will put more emphasis on using RBs Javon Ringer and Jehuu Caulcrick. QB Brian Hoyer played well when he got the chance as Stanton's understudy.
MICHIGAN STATE TOP 10
Dantonio will look to Javon Ringer early and often
Best player: RB Javon Ringer. Ringer has led the Spartans in rushing two consecutive years, and did so despite missing four games with a knee injury last season.
Most overrated: WR Terry Love. A former three-star prospect, Love is considered one of the Spartans' top receivers. However, he only managed 18 catches last season - which ranked fifth on the team.
Most underrated: QB Brian Hoyer. A career backup, Hoyer is better than many realize and will get his chance to prove it. He played well when given the chance in 2006.
Must step up: Hoyer. The loss of talented QB Drew Stanton left a hole, but not one as big as one might think. Hoyer played well when stepping in for an injured Stanton and passed for 863 yards and four touchdowns. Most of that came in the last two games of the season when he completed 56 of 111 attempts for 621 yards.
Impact newcomer: FB Jeff McPherson. A former walk-on, McPherson won the starting job in the spring. His presence figures to bolster the Spartans' running game.
Position battle: There looks like a battle brewing at center, where John Masters is the projected starter. He started the last three games of the 2006 season. Guards Pete Clifford and Mike Bacon may be moved to center to boost the athleticism and production there.
New in 2007: Under Dantonio, the Spartans are switching from a Spread to a pro-style offense. Dantonio added a fullback - which John L. Smith didn't employ - and promises the tight end will be a prominent part of the offense.
Grade the units: QB: B-minus. Sure Stanton is gone, but how much he'll be missed remains to be seen. Hoyer has shown flashes in limited action.
RB: A-minus. This should be one of the strengths of the team, and Dantonio is smart enough to utilize the skill players he has there.
WR: C-plus. The running game will be featured more, and that could be a good thing. Love needs to reach his potential for this grade to be higher.
OL: C. An average group gets an average grade. The change in scheme could benefit this unit.
Breaking down the defense
Overview: Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi supervised defensive units at Cincinnati which ranked among the nation's top 40 in 2004 and 2006. He should be able to accomplish similar success in East Lansing, but maybe not immediately. The LBs figure to be solid with SirDarean Adams and Kaleb Thornhill leading the way. The cornerbacks will be new, and the Spartans' defensive line will have two new starters. The men up front must produce more sacks.
Best player: S Otis Wiley. In 2006 Wiley led the Spartans with 94 tackles and 10 passes broken up.
Most overrated: LB SirDarean Adams. A three-year starter, Adams gets a lot of attention and can make big plays, but needs to be more consistent.
Most underrated: LB Kaleb Thornhill. Somewhat overshadowed by Adams, Thornhill has started 21 consecutive games. He ranked third in tackles last season.
Michigan State Schedule
at Notre Dame
at Ohio State
Shoes to fill: Clifton Ryan, a fifth-round draft choice of the St. Louis Rams, constantly took on double team blocks for the Spartans last year. Ogemdi Nwagbuo likely moves into that vacated position. He'll try to maintain defensive tackle as a position of strength.
Who must perform: DE Ervin Baldwin notched four of the 16 sacks the Spartans accumulated last year. He has the ability to pressure the QB, and he will need to. That 16-sack total needs to increase.
Impact newcomer: DL Michael Jordan. A 6-foot-6, 300-pound four-star prospect, Jordan has the versatility to play tackle and end. The Spartans need to find starters and establish depth at both spots.
Position battle: Two-thirds of the LB corps is set with Adams and Thornhill. Andrew Hawken and Jonathan Misch will vie to see who rounds out the group as the strongside LB.
New in 2007: With Narduzzi calling the shots, the Spartans are expected to have a more aggressive coverage scheme. Michigan State is expected to feature more bump and run looks on the outside.
Grade the units: DL: C. The men up front need to put more pressure on the passer. A big year from Baldwin will help. Ryan will be missed.
LB: B. An experienced and talented group. Adams has potential, but must become more dependable.
DB: B. The corners will be isolated more than in the past. If the line gets pressure they'll be fine. If not, it could be a long year for the secondary.
Breaking down the special teams
Overview: Freshman All-American Brett Swenson ensures the place-kicking duties are covered. The absence of Brandon Fields, one of the best punters in the Big Ten, could be a significant loss if incoming freshman Aaron Bates falters. The Spartans must also upgrade their return teams that were largely ineffective in 2006.
Best player: K Brett Swenson
Grade the units: K: A. Swenson earned national attention in his rookie year, and he deserved it.
P: Incomplete. Certainly a dropoff is likely, but we need to see Bates perform before we give him a grade.
KR: C. Unit certainly wasn't a strength, but we'll reserve judgment for a bit while the new coaching staff makes adjustments.
PR: C. See kick returner analysis.
Breaking down the coaching
Overview: Mark Dantonio is counted on to bring stability to a program that was unstable under previous coach John L. Smith. Having coached under Glen Mason, Nick Saban and Jim Tressel, Dantonio guided Cincinnati to bowl games in two of his three seasons there.
Season outlook with bowl forecast
Mark Dantonio's Cincinnati teams were especially stout defensively, which is an area the Spartans need to improve. The Bearcats typically got better as the season progressed. That has been a sore point for Michigan State. The schedule is the most difficult in the league, so a .500 finish might be the best Dantonio can hope for in his inaugural season.
Grade the coaches: Head coach: B. Dantonio has performed well at smaller programs. Given time, he should help restore some of the old glory in East Lansing.
Offense: B-minus. Utilizing Ringer and Caulcrick – and getting away from the spread – seems to be a good scheme switch. That is a sign of good coaching.
Defense: B-plus. This is Dantonio's specialty. His Bearcats were in a top-25 unit against the run last season. In the Big Ten, stopping the run is critical.
Special teams: C. Place-kicking should be strength, but punter is a question mark and the return game has been average recently. There is a chance for the coaching grade to improve here, depending on how the season unfolds.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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