Michigan State Spartans football preview 2013: Best case, worst case, prediction

Photo: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Our next set of two-a-days feature a pair of teams that have very real title hopes, assuming their offseason questions are answered and a couple of things break their way. Who am I talking about? Here’s a hint, they play for the Land Grant Trophy, but it is not a protected rivalry. That didn’t help? Okay, its Michigan State and Penn State.

Michigan State’s biggest offseason issue was offense…all of it. The Spartans were 86th in passing, 76th in rushing and 110th in points per game. The unexplosive unit cost them wins against Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan and Northwestern. The unit also flatlined against Notre Dame. Only in the loss to Nebraska could you spread the blame around. Still, the team won in Madison and did beat Boise. They also beat a good TCU team in the bowl to end with seven wins.

Andrew Maxwell is back as quarterback and his two favorite targets join him. Connor Cook also saw playing time last year and hopefully the competition will kick Maxwell into high gear. The departure of Le’veon Bell is a hit considering he rushed for nearly 1,800 yards. Hopefully his numbers can be achieved through running back by committee. The Spartans’ top ten defense returns their fair share of talent, including LB Max Bullough, who could be the best linebacker in the league when its all said and done. Bottom line is, even a meager step forward on offense could be enough to send this squad to Indy, considering they avoid OSU and Penn State.

2013 Schedule

Western Michigan: 4-8 (2-6) – MAC

Best Case: WMU plays 3 Big Ten teams this year. They are either really ambitions or the athletic department had some bills to pay. 1-0

Worst Case: MSU went 2-0 against the MAC a year ago, including humiliating a bowl winning team in Central Michigan. 1-0

Prediction: For an average offensive team, this is not the opening day task you want. Could be a long day for the Broncos moving the ball. W: 31-3, 1-0

South Florida: 3-9 (1-6) – Big East

Best Case: Can I just say this has to win the award for most random non-con game of the year in the Big Ten. I could understand Michigan State wanting a little vacation down in Tampa, or when teams play at UNLV; but how did MSU get USF to come to East Lansing? Strange. 2-0

Worst Case: USF is in a pretty big rebuilding project and it’s a home game. 2-0

Prediction: New coach and a new QB for USF. Not a recipe for success against one of the nation’s elite defensive units. W: 21-7, 2-0

Youngstown State: 7-4 (4-4) – Missouri Valley (FCS)

Best Case: A middle of the road FCS team at home, easy as pie. 3-0

Worst Case: The Pens did start out 4-0, including a win at Pitt last year by two touchdowns. They could keep it closer than the oddsmakers think. 3-0

Prediction: The stout MSU defense didn’t have a shutout last year and I hate predicting goose eggs, but I’m going to go big with this swing and say in a fall thunderstorm, MSU keeps the scoreboard blank on a sloppy field. W: 17-0, 3-0

@ Notre Dame: 12-1 – Independent

Best Case: In a disappointing flat game at home, MSU lost 20-3 a year ago. In what has been a very exciting rivalry as of late, Sparty shuts down touchdown Jesus with their own impressive performance. 4-0

Worst Case: Irish fans and coaches said 2013 was the year to look out for. Maybe they are right and maybe MSU’s offense wilts against a solid D. 3-1

Prediction: Even with the whole Golson fiasco and Tommy Rees getting the call, Notre Dame is a little safer pick in this game since it is in South Bend, its MSU’s first road trip of the year and there are no guarntees Michigan State’s offense will be ready for their close up on this nationally televised game. L: 17-10, 3-1

@ Iowa: 4-8 (2-6) – Big Ten

Best Case: MSU enters the season unranked, but after a 5-0 start, including the win at Notre Dame, they find themselves ranked somewhere around 15th. 5-0

Worst Case: Iowa did win this game a year ago folks, just saying. 3-2

Prediction: The road trips to Notre Dame and Iowa have the look, feel and smell of a split. I went with the more sure thing in Notre Dame. W: 24-21, 4-1 (1-0)

Indiana: 4-8 (2-6) – Big Ten

Best Case: Indiana’s hopeful season has already turned into another lost year in Bloomington. Meanwhile MSU continues to roll towards that date with Michigan. 6-0

Worst Case: MSU struggled with Indiana a year ago, winning by just four points (they were down 27-17 entering the 4th). This could be a game we look back on at the end of the year as a turning point for Indiana in terms of making a bowl and perhaps a changing of the guard in the league. Perhaps. 3-3

Prediction: I certainly expect Indiana to make a game of it and keep things close, but I’ll ride Sparty’s defense. Perhaps a big sack and fumble gives MSU a short field late. Perhaps a pick-six helps cover up a mediocre showing the rest of the day. W: 21-17, 5-1 (2-0)

Purdue: 6-7 (3-5) – Big Ten

Best Case: I think Purdue could be a trainwreck this year (cue sad trombone slide for the weak pun). 7-0

Worst Case: I don’t see Purdue detailing MSU in East Lansing (dear God make it stop!). 4-3

Prediction: Gamedyr fires me if I make another Purdue and train pun during this prediction. MSU had one of their best offensive days against Minnesota last year. I think Purdue and the Gophers are pretty similar in terms of overall talent. This could translate to Michigan State’s cleanest and most efficient offensive performance this year. W: 28-10, 6-1 (3-0)

At Illinois: 2-10 (0-8) – Big Ten

Best Case: I take that back, this could be the Spartans’ cleanest and most efficient offensive performance of the year. 8-0

Worst Case: MSU’s offense hasn’t taken the next step and Illinois is the surprise team of the year. MSU falls victim to the type of upset that has plagued this program in the past. 4-4

Prediction: Simply put, Illinois lacks the talent to hang with MSU for four quarters, especially in the Illini O vs MSU D gameplan. W: 24-10, 7-1 (4-0)

Michigan: 8-5 (6-2) – Big Ten

Best Case: MSU made this game interesting a year ago in the Big House. If the Spartans show just marginal improvement in offense they will exact revenge on last season’s 12-0 loss. 9-0

Worst Case: The hangover from a stunning Illinois loss spills over into the next game. Boos fly around the stadium as the offense produces just 150 total yards and sputters to a three point effort. 4-5

Prediction: The division title race becomes very interesting as the Spartans drop their first league game in heartbreaking fashion. L: 17-16 (MSU tallies 3 FGs), 7-2 (4-1)

At Nebraska: 10-4 (7-1) – Big Ten

Best Case: MSU forced three turnovers a year ago, but still lost, 28-24. Part of the problem was two giveaways of their own. If they can limit the mistakes in this one, the Spartans will not only find themselves in the thick of the Big Ten race, but a factor in the BCS as well. 10-0

Worst Case: The Husker’s offense lives up to the offseason hype. Meanwhile, MSU’s scoring power continues to struggle and they are also fighting the injury bug late in the season. 4-6

Prediction: Based on Nebraska’s schedule, this game comes at a very advantageous time for MSU to pull off a nice road win. However, I think the Huskers get it done thanks to the home crowd pushing them after a slow start. L: 24-21, 7-3 (4-2)

At Northwestern: 10-3 (5-3) – Big Ten

Best Case: MSU comes away from their two toughest games and then travel to a banged up Northwestern team. Only Minnesota can upset the rolling Spartans now. 11-0

Worst Case: Northwestern won this game a season ago in East Lansing. With a lot of talent returning for both teams, there is a great possibility to do it again. Meanwhile, the Spartans are now out of a bowl game and the Detroit Free Press has started to write about Dantonio’s seat getting warm. 4-7

Prediction: This game is about as even as you can get. I could easily see this going to overtime. I’ll take Northwestern’s superior tools on offense to be the difference in an instant classic. L: 20-17 (27-24 with OT), 7-4 (4-3)

Minnesota: 6-7 (2-6) – Big Ten

Best Case: MSU had one of their most complete games a season ago in this match up. Not good for the Gophers, especially if MSU really is undefeated going in. 12-0

Worst Case: MSU completely bottoms out and is disinterested in this game. Not even senior day festivities get them up for it and Minnesota picks up an essential win for their hopes at improving in year three under Jerry Kill. 4-8

Prediction: After dropping their three toughest games by a total of seven points, an angry bunch of Spartans, led by their seniors drop the hammer on Minnesota to get to a decent bowl, maybe even the Outback. W: 31-14, 8-4 (5-3)

Final Thoughts

Outside the three week stretch late in the season, this is a very manageable Big Ten schedule. That alone makes MSU a threat to get to Indianapolis. It is a broken record to keep bringing up the offense again, but it really is that drastic of an issue. The Spartans failed to average three TDs a game and have to replace a running back that had almost 1,800 yards despite facing seven and eight man boxes. Everything hinges on Andrew Maxwell, or someone else stepping in and being a consistent, competent and confident starting quarterback. If they get that, the 12-0 ceiling really is possible. Without it, well, Iowa bombed out going 4-8 last year, bad things happen when that position is uncertain.