That momentum should continue in 2012. With that, I present 10 reasons for Michigan State fans to be excited about the coming season.
1. Linebackers. The trio of senior Chris Norman and junior Denicos Allen—who play on the outside–along with junior Max Bullough—the anchor in the middle who led the team 89 tackles last year–is a formidable bunch that combines athletic ability, strength and speed with a veteran savvy. Want more? The staff raves about depth, headed by redshirt freshman Darien Harris.
2. Big uglies. The offensive line arguably has been the slowest to come around in the Mark Dantonio era. Well, it looks like the unit’s time has arrived. This without a doubt will be the best front under Dantonio. Four of five starters are back, with junior left guard Blake Treadwell being the lone new starter. Senior Dan France will start next to him at tackle with sophomore Travis Jackson at center. The right side returns intact with Fou Fonoti at tackle and Chris McDonald at guard. Both are seniors.
3. Secondary. Remember those days when this was an area of weakness in East Lansing? Seems like a long time ago. The defensive backfield has morphed into an annual strength under Dantonio. And that will continue this fall with three of four starters back. The one loss is a big one in safety Trenton Robinson. But fellow safety Isaiah Lewis is a superstar in the making as he enters his junior season. Junior Kurtis Drummond takes over for Robinson. The corner tandem of senior Johnny Adams and junior Darqueze Dennard may be the best in the Big Ten. Some think Adams is the top NFL prospect in the conference.
[BTN.com: Preseason Big Ten player rankings]
4. Special teams. Experience abounds in this key area. It begins with senior kicker Dan Conroy. He has nailed 32-of-39 field-goal attempts over the past two seasons, including three from over 50 yards. Mike Sadler is coming off an impressive freshman debut, averaging 41.1 yards per boot with 11 punts downed inside the 10-yard line. Diminutive Nick Hill is a speedy kickoff return man who can go the distance, but a punt returner needs to emerge with Keshawn Martin gone.
5. Mark Dantonio. Entering his sixth season in East Lansing, the guy has it going and may be the hottest coach in the Big Ten not named Bret Bielema. His team has beaten Michigan four times in a row, is 3-2 vs. Notre Dame and is coming off consecutive 11-win seasons, capping last year with an impressive victory over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
6. William Gholston. If the 6-7, 275-pound junior isn’t the best defensive end in America, I’d like to meet who that person is. Gholston is a beast vs. the run and is a pterodactyl coming off the edge as a pass rusher. He must be double-teamed, which creates opportunities for his linemates. Gholston will combine with fellow end Marcus Rush—a sophomore–to give the Spartans a presence off the edge.
7. Schedule. Yes, challenges abound, but a quick start is possible with four of the first five games at home. Included in those home tilts to start the season are visits from Boise State in the season opener, Notre Dame and the Big Ten opener vs. Ohio State. Beat the Buckeyes to start 5-0, and Michigan State may be very difficult to derail as its aims for its first Rose Bowl trip since the 1987 season.
8. Le’Veon Bell. Wisconsin’s Montee Ball is getting the hype—and rightly so. But Bell is a special back who could emerge as the best in the Big Ten. The 6-2, 238-pound junior is a jack hammer of consistency who can move the chains, running for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2011. He also has a burst to get around the edge. With the passing game being retooled with Kirk Cousins gone, Bell and the ground game will have to carry a big load early in the season.
9. Pat Narduzzi. Is there a better defensive coordinator in the Big Ten? No. Narduzzi deftly pushes the buttons on this formidable Spartan defense that has become the premier unit in the Big Ten. The defense ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten last season. As a result, Narduzzi—who almost left for the same post with Texas A&M after 2011–is the hottest assistant in the conference and is primed to become a head coach.
[BTN.com: Q&A with Michigan State DC Pat Narduzzi]
10. Big Mo. Michigan State is on a roll and may be the hottest team in the Big Ten coming off those back-to-back 11-victory seasons. And the Spartans will need that momentum, especially an offense that must replace quarterback Kirk Cousins and his leadership along with top receivers in B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol and tight end Brian Linthicum. Those four players combined for 202 catches in 2011.
BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is on Twitter and Facebook, all of his work is at btn.com/tomdienhart, and you can subscribe to it all via his RSS feed. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below.
And if you want to leave a comment on this post, use the box below. All comments need to be approved by a moderator.