Chris Frey (23) and Drew Beesley (86) of the Michigan State Spartans celebrate defeating the Washington State Cougars 42-17 in the SDCCU Holiday Bowl at SDCCU Stadium on December 28, 2017 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Football

Our annual Top 25 countdown: No. 11 Michigan State sure looks a lot like 2017 Michigan State

The experienced Sparts pretty much just need to find a new center off last year's 10-win team; is a possible run at a Big Ten title in the cards?

Posted July 18th, 2018

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Sure, it’s July. But it’s never too early to talk college football. Here’s your daily fix — our annual countdown of the preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last year’s eventual CFP semifinalists were ranked Nos. 1, 5, 8 and 14 on our 2017 list.

Our Top 25 — so far:

No. 25: Texas is building — but are we there yet, are we there yet?

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No. 24: LSU has a tough schedule, questions at key spots

No. 23: Oregon welcomes a new coach — again and again and again

No. 22: Central Florida is out to go unbeaten (ahem, again)

No. 21: There’s a new coach, offense and direction for Florida State

No. 20: Their big names gone, USC is reloading … or is that rebuilding?

No. 19: For West Virginia, when there’s a Will there’s a way

No. 18: For Boise State, the Mountain West sky is the limit

No. 17: Mississippi State is breaking in a new head coach

No.16: Virginia Tech’s chances hinge on an up-and-down quarterback

No. 15: TCU has been the model of consistency, but there are 2018 concerns

No. 14: Love is all you need, at least if you’re talking about Stanford’s Bryce Love

No. 13: Notre Dame is on the brink of a real springboard season

No. 12: Michigan has said goodbye to John O’Korn, hello to Shea Patterson

Today’s team: No. 11 Michigan State

The Spartans’ best-case scenario: The Spartans overcame inexperience in 2017, rebounding from an uncharacteristic 2016 campaign to win 10 games. They should be even better in 2018 and a run at a Big Ten title and a berth into the College Football Playoffs is the goal. We’ll know more about Michigan State after its matchup with Michigan on Oct. 20.

Their worst-case scenario: Last year’s 10-win season sets the expectations too high and the Big Ten schedule humbles the Spartans in 2018. Michigan State plays Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan in three consecutive weeks in October. Multiple losses make a Big Ten title impossible, then the wheels fall off in November against Nebraska and Ohio State..

RELATED COVERAGE: Michigan vs. Michigan State — who wins in Madden NFL ’19?

RELATED COVERAGE: Where does the Michigan State program rank this decade?

Inside the Spartans

Coach: Mark Dantonio (12th year, 100-45; 118-62 overall at Cincinnati and Michigan State)

2017: 10-3, 7-2 in the Big Ten (beat Washington State 42-17 in the Holiday Bowl)

Returning starters: 10 offense, 9 defense

Goodbye: C Brian Allen (4th, Rams); DC Harlon Barnett (Florida State)

Spring cleaning: The 2018 season is about living up to expectations for Michigan State. The Big Ten headlines are dominated by Ohio State and Michigan, but the Spartans return 17 starters from a 10-win team. Michigan State lost co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett to Florida State, but Mike Tressel remains to keep the scheme the same for the Spartans. The only loss on the offensive side of the ball was Brian Allen, the all-conference center.

David Dowell of the Michigan State Spartans looks on before the game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers on October 14, 2017 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Dowell led the team in interceptions last year. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Returning leaders

PASSING: Brian Lewerke, 246-417-2,793, 20/7 (1st)

RUSHING: LJ Scott, 201-898-8 (1st); QB Brian Lewerke, 124-559-5 (2nd)

RECEIVING: Felton Davis III, 55-776-9 (1st); Darrell Stewart Jr., 50-501-2 (2nd); Cody White, 35-490-4 (3rd)

TACKLES: LB Joe Bachie, 100 (1st); LB Andrew Dowell, 74 (2nd); DE Kenny Willekes, 73 (3rd)

SACKS: DE Kenny Willekes, 7 (1st); S Khari Willis, 4 (T-2nd)

INTERCEPTIONS: S David Dowell, 5 (1st); LB Joe Bachie, 3 (2nd)

Returning All-Big Ten players (15)

Offense: WR Felton Davis III (2nd team); OG David Beedle (3rd); OT Luke Campbell (hon. mention); OG Kevin Jarvis (hon. mention); QB Brian Lewerke (hon. mention); RB LJ Scott (hon. mention)

Defense: S David Dowell (1st); DE Kenny Willekes (3rd); LB Joe Bachie (3rd); CB Josiah Scott (3rd); CB Justin Layne (hon. mention); DT Mike Panasiuk (hon. mention); DT Raequan Williams (hon. mention); S Khari Willis (hon. mention)

Special teams: K Matt Coghlin (hon. mention)

FYI

Experience in bunches: Michigan State returns its starting quarterback who threw for 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns as a sophomore. It also returns its leading rusher and receiver, plus four starters along the offensive line. The defense returns nine starters. There isn’t a more experienced team in the Top 25 after overachieving with 10 wins in 2017. The only starter lost on offense was at center.

A 1-2 punch: Quarterback Brian Lewerke and running back LJ Scott form the best quarterback-running back tandem in the conference. The two combined for 13 rushing touchdowns and nearly 1,500 yards on the ground. With four starters returning along the line, those numbers should only grow. That dynamic opens up the passing game and gives Michigan State an identity in cold, bad-weather games late in the season.

Continuity in East Lansing: Consistency is underrated. More than half of Michigan State’s 17 losses over the past five seasons came in a nine-loss season in 2016. The Spartans registered another double-digit win season in 2017 despite a lack of experience. Not much will change for the Spartans. The formula has worked in the past and Michigan State hopes to ride that to a championship in a winnable Big Ten.

2017 national rankings

Scoring: 96th (24.5 ppg) — right above No. 97 Miami-Ohio, right behind No. 95 Vanderbilt

Points allowed: 19th (20.0 ppg) — right above No. 20 Northwestern, right behind Nos. 17 Marshall and Iowa

Passing: 76th (215.2 ypg) — right above No. 77 South Carolina, right behind No. 75 Appalachian State

Rushing: 62nd (167.8 ypg) — right above No. 63 Houston, right behind No. 61 Arkansas

Total offense: 91st (383.1 ypg) — right above No. 92 Marshall, right behind No. 90 Miami-Ohio

Total defense: 7th (297.6 ypg) — right above No. 8 Washington, right behind No. 6 Georgia

Brian Lewerke (14) of the Michigan State Spartans eludes Jahad Woods (13) of the Washington State Cougars during the first half of the SDCCU Holiday Bowl at SDCCU Stadium on December 28, 2017 in San Diego, California. Lewerke threw 20 touchdowns his sophomore season. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The schedule

DATEOPPONENTLAST YR'S RESULT (IF PLAYED)
Aug. 31 (6 p.m., BTN)Utah State
Sept. 8 (9:45 p.m., ESPN)at Arizona State
Sept. 22at Indiana*W, 17-9
Sept. 29Central Michigan
Oct. 6 (11 a.m.)Northwestern*L, 39-31 (3 OT)
Oct. 13at Penn State*W, 27-24
Oct. 20Michigan*W, 14-10
Oct. 27Purdue*
Nov. 3at Maryland*W, 17-7
Nov. 10Ohio State*L, 48-3
Nov. 17at Nebraska*
Nov. 24Rutgers*W, 40-7
* Big Ten game

The key game: Nov. 10, Ohio State. The East Division in the Big Ten is loaded again and Michigan State is hoping to become champion. The Michigan game is always circled on the calendar, but the matchup against Ohio State might decide the champion in the East.

The last 5 years

YEARW-L (CONF.)RANKINGSBOWL, RESULT
201313-1 (8-0)— / 3rdRose, W
201411-2 (7-1)8th / 8thCotton, W
201512-2 (7-1)5th / 6thCFP semifinals, L
20163-9 (1-8)12th / —No bowl
201710-3 (7-2)— / 15thHoliday, W
Total49-17 (30-12 Big Ten)3-1 in bowls

Note: Ranks are that year’s preseason/final ranking

Our Top 25, by conferences

3 schools:

Pac-12 (No. 14 Stanford, No. 20 USC, No. 23 Oregon)

Big 12 (No. 15 TCU, No. 19 West Virginia, No. 25 Texas)

2 schools:

Big Ten (No. 11 Michigan State, No. 12 Michigan)

ACC (No. 16 Virginia Tech, No. 21 Florida State)

SEC (No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 24 LSU)

1 school:

Independents (No. 13 Notre Dame)

Mountain West (No. 18 Boise State)

AAC (No. 22 Central Florida)

Coming tomorrow: Our No. 10 team

Want a hint? The last time Texas played this team, John Mackovic was the Longhorns’ coach and the game was played on New Year’s Day.

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