What a difference a year makes. At this time last summer, the wolves were howling at the door for Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. The 2016 season had been a 3-9 disaster and the Spartans looked ready to fall irreversibly behind their Big Ten East rivals. Fast forward to this season. Sparty flipped its record to 9-3, knocked off both Michigan and Penn State and is ranked #11 in the AP preseason poll—three spots ahead of those hated Wolverines, who have seen the wolves find their way to Ann Arbor.
There are good reasons for the expectations. Michigan State is loaded with experience on both sides of the football. Brian Lewerke stabilized the quarterback position last year and could quietly make a run at Penn State’s Trace McSorley for the honor of best signal-caller in the Big Ten. Lewerke has an emerging star at receiver in Felton Davis. The offensive line is experienced and paves the way for an ideal running back combo, the power of L.J. Scott and shifty Connor Heyward.
Dantonio’s calling card in East Lansing has always been defense, and there’s still more veterans on this side of the ball. Nine starters return overall and the Spartans will be very physical up front with defensive tackles Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams. Inside linebacker Joe Pachie is a key leader on a unit that plays with the kind of toughness Michigan State showed in its recent Big Ten title runs of 2013 and 2015 under Dantonio.
It’s for those reasons that the Spartans are grouped with four other teams (Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State) that are given realistic chances of winning the conference championship in Indianapolis this December. Michigan State’s 8-1 odds to win the Big Ten are at the bottom of this group, which starts with the Buckeyes as the 7-5 favorite. But it’s a big dropoff to the next teams on the board, which are Nebraska & Iowa at 25-1. Clearly, Sparty is perceived among the conference elite.
That’s all very reasonable, but if Michigan State is going to separate themselves from those teams in big games and avoid even a single stumble in any other game, which is what winning this league and challenging for the College Football Playoff will require, they need something more. They need a real superstar to step up defensively. An edge rusher that causes havoc in the minds of opposing offensive coordinators. A shutdown corner that locks up one receiver by himself and frees up defensive coordinator Mike Tressel to turn the dogs loose on the quarterback.
Michigan State’s best teams under Dantonio had that with defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who keyed the ‘13 and ‘15 runs. Someone on this year’s team has to fill that bill if the Spartans are going to take the leap from interesting team that I like to root for, to honest-to-goodness championship contender.