The Michigan State Spartans enjoyed a very successful 2015 season, making it all the way to the CFP national semifinals. But they have holes to fill in 2016 if they hope to contend for another playoff berth. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Football

The American-Statesman’s Top 25: No. 15 Michigan State

Posted July 16th, 2016

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Sure, it’s just July. But it’s never too early to talk college football. Here’s your daily fix — our eighth annual countdown of the preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last season’s four College Football Playoff semifinalists were rated Nos. 3, 6, 13 and 24 on our 2015 list.

Today’s team: No. 15 Michigan State (Related coverage: Grad transfer Sherrod upgrades from Delaware State to Michigan State)

The Spartans will contend if … they can effectively replace quarterback Connor Cook, a three-year starter who went 34-4 and broke virtually all of Michigan State’s passing records. However, the Spartans will need to do more than just find a reliable quarterback if they hope to win 11 games for the sixth time in the past seven years — Michigan State also must replace three of its top four receivers from 2015.

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INSIDE THE SPARTANS

Coach: Mark Dantonio (10th year, 87-33; 105-50 overall at Cincinnati, Michigan State)

2015: 12-2, 7-1 in the Big Ten; lost to Alabama in the CFP semifinals 38-0

Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense

The key game: Oct. 29, Michigan

Hello: QB Tyler O’Connor, OG Brian Allen, DT Malik McDowell, RB L.J. Scott, DE Demtrius Cooper, LB Riley Bullough

Goodbye: QB Connor Cook (Oakland Raiders), WR Aaron Burbridge (San Francisco 49ers), WR Macgarrett Kings, WR DeAnthony Arnett, LT Jack Conklin (Tennessee Titans), C Jack Allen (New Orleans Saints)

Spring cleaning: Dantonio and his staff went into the spring with one priority: Rebuild the passing game. They seemed to have achieved that goal; in the spring game, fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor completed 10 of 16 passes for 138 yards and a touchdown in limited action. More importantly, O’Connor again showed the poise that he exhibited while filling in for an injured Cook in last year’s upset win over Ohio State. Touted freshman receiver Donnie Corley had a quiet spring game, but the coaches still believe that the 6-3, 190-pound four-star recruit will emerge as a difference-maker. Defensively, graduation took a toll on the front with the departure of three starting linemen.

Michigan State's Madre London is one of three experienced running backs returning for the Spartans. London rushed for 500 yards and three touchdowns last year; LJ Scott (699, 11 TDs) and Gerald Holmes (540, 8) also are back. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Michigan State’s Madre London is one of three experienced running backs returning for the Spartans. London rushed for 500 yards and three touchdowns last year; LJ Scott (699, 11 TDs) and Gerald Holmes (540, 8) also are back. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

RETURNING LEADERS

Passing: Tyler O’Connor, 13-24-133 yards, 2/1 (2nd)

Rushing: LJ Scott, 146-699-11 (1st); Gerald Holmes, 110-540-8 (2nd); Madre London, 119-500-3 (3rd)

Receiving: RJ Shelton, 43-503-4 (2nd)

Tackles: LB Riley Bullough, 106 (1st)

Sacks: DE Demetrius Cooper, 5 (2nd)

RETURNING ALL CONFERENCE (2)

Offense: OG Brian Allen (2nd team)

Defense: DT Malik McDowell (2nd)

FYI …

  • Corley isn’t the only heralded freshman receiver who arrived early on campus. Cameron Chambers also took part in spring drills, and true freshmen Justin Layne and Trishton Jackson add to the talented but raw receiving corps. The Spartans will need those youngsters to contribute quickly; they’ve lost 66 percent of their receptions and 65 percent of the receiving yards from 2015.
  • Although Malik McDowell, an all-conference defensive tackle, gives the Spartans a physical presence to the front seven, they’ll need to develop some pass rushers to replace three-time All-Big Ten DE Shilique Calhoun. A revamped pass rush also will keep the pressure of a secondary that gave up 233.9 passing yards per game last season, although injuries played a big role in the porous pass coverage.
  • An early-season road trip to Notre Dame looks daunting, but Michigan State appears to have caught a break with its schedule. The Spartans play top conference rivals Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State at home, and all of their conference road games appear winnable. If the revamped offense can find its rhythm by the time Michigan State opens Big Ten play against Wisconsin in the third game, the program may spring a surprise run to the conference title game.

Michigan State's 2016 schedule

DateOpponentLast yr's result (if played)
Sept. 2Furman
Sept. 17at Notre Dame
Sept. 24Wisconsin*
Oct. 1at Indiana*W, 52-26
Oct. 8BYU
Oct. 15Northwestern*
Oct. 22at Maryland*W, 24-7
Oct. 29Michigan*W, 27-23
Nov. 5at Illinois*
Nov. 12Rutgers*W, 31-24
Nov. 19Ohio State*W, 17-14
Nov. 26at Penn State*W, 55-16
* Big Ten game

Michigan State: The last 5 years

YearW-L/Conf.RankBowl
201512-2 / 7-15th / 6thCFP semifinals, L
201411-2 / 7-18th / 6thCotton Bowl, W
201313-1 / 8-0— / 3rdRose Bowl, W
20127-6 / 3-513th / —Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, W
201111-3 / 7-117th / 11thOutback Bowl, W
Total54-14, 32-85 bowl games (4-1)
Note: Ranks are that year’s preseason/final ranking.

 

2015 NATIONAL RANKS

Scoring: 56th (29.8 ppg)

Scoring defense: 22nd (21.7 ppg)

Passing yards: 52nd (234.2 ypg)

Rushing yards: 88th (151.3 ypg)

TOP 25 SO FAR …

No. 25: Washington State

No. 24: Boise State

No. 23: Louisville

No. 22: Oklahoma State

No. 21: Oregon

No. 20: North Carolina

No. 19: Baylor

No. 18: Iowa

No. 17: Georgia

No. 16: Michigan State

No. 15: Coming Sunday. Want a hint? This school opens its season against Alabama and ends it with Notre Dame.

BY CONFERENCE

3 schools: Pac-12 (17-Washington, 21-Oregon, 25-Washington State)

2 schools: ACC (20-North Carolina, 23-Louisville); Big Ten (15-Michigan State, 18-Iowa); Big 12 (19-Baylor, 22-Oklahoma State)

1 school: SEC (16-Georgia); Mountain West (24-Boise State)

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