The Spartans have had 11 wins or more five times in the last six seasons, and have been a Top-10 team at the end of each of the last three seasons. For a team that doesn't recruit with the big boys and eternally lives in the shadow of Ohio State and Michigan in their conference, that is a remarkable run of success. That success faces a big threat this year, though. The conference is shaping up to be very tough - or at least very top heavy - and the Spartans face a big job in reloading this year after departures to several key stars.
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Success never makes things easier in college football, and it's going to be a big challenge for this team to be a top-level contender this year. Of course, you can't write off this program - we surely have learned that by now. So, do they have what it takes to again put hated rival Michigan and eternal power Ohio State in their places and shine, or do they need to step back and regroup before making another push for the top?
Key Additions and Departures
After being spoiled the last few years, the Spartans are in the unenviable position of having to replace both a stud quarterback and a much of a very strong offensive line. Connor Cook left East Lansing as the all-time passing leader, and there is likely to be a big step down at the quarterback position this year. Fifth-year senior Tyler O'Connor likely leads a quarterback battle that doesn't particularly inspire at this point. The obvious problem if O'Connor does take the job is that they just have to go through all of this again. The new QB will be forced to find his way behind an offensive line missing three key starters - most notably left tackle Jack Conklin, who was drafted eighth overall by the Titans. The new QB will also have to work with a new center as previous starter Jack Allen has moved on. As if that's not bad enough, the team is also without Aaron Burbridge, the receiver who sucked up every ball Cook threw even remotely in his vicinity. The receiving corps is a real area for concern at this point beyond the loss of Burbridge - R.J. Shelton is an established veteran as a senior, but no one else boasts more than seven career catches. The team has some talent in place to fill the missing roles, but they will need a lot of luck and quick studying to get up to speed in time for the early tests on their schedule.
The defense returns just five starters, but there are some very good ones among them. Malik McDowell is ferocious on the defensive line, and Riley Bullough led the team in tackles. Bullough leads a linebacking corps that is as deep as any in the Big Ten despite some changes, and the line has some good depth, too, despite the loss of Shilique Calhoun - end Demetrius Cooper has not started yet, but he has played enough that we know he could be a star in his junior season. The safeties are also among the best in the conference, but the cornerbacks will need to step up and show what they can do.
Michigan State Spartans Schedule Analysis
We'll start with the good news - by my count there are four games that they pretty much can't lose. There are five more that are challenges but which the Spartans should clearly be able to win if they play their game - at home against Wisconsin, Northwestern and BYU, and at Maryland and Penn State. It's those other three, though, that are really tough and which will ultimately define how the season turns out. In Week 3 after a joke of a game against Furman and a bye they head to South Bend to play likely Top-10 foe Notre Dame. We will have a very good indication before September is barely half over, then, of where this team is at. At the end of October they host Michigan. The Spartans have owned their in-state rivals in recent times, but this is the best Wolverines team in at least a decade, so that could be a real war. Three weeks later they host Ohio State, the other early powerhouse in the conference. Hosting both of those games is a nice break, but both teams have defenses that will absolutely tear apart the Michigan State offense if they have not found their game in time.
2016-17 Michigan State Betting Odds and Trends
Bovada has Michigan State at +3300 to win the title, which ties them with Baylor, TCU and USC as the 13th choice to win it all. Hard to see value there - for the Spartans or any other team in that odd group, for that matter. The Spartans are the third choice to win the Big Ten at +700, though far behind the top two, and also the third choice to win the Big Ten East far behind Ohio State and Michigan. BetOnline has set the season win total at eight, with the "under" comfortably favored at -135.
Despite their success on the scoreboard last year, this team was a disaster to bet on - they wound up just 5-8-1 ATS. They went under the total eight times in their 14 games.
2016-17 Michigan State Predictions and College Football Picks
I am not optimistic this year. That season win total of eight is very well set. I don't expect them to win any of their three toughest games, and they will likely drop at least one of that next tier as well. I don't expect a permanent step back from this program by any means, but they have lost too many key pieces not to at least falter slightly.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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