2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Save for one hiccup at 20th-ranked Notre Dame in September (17-13 loss), the Spartans turned in a nearly unblemished season and established themselves as the class of the Big Ten in 2013.
Michigan State went 13-1, finished No. 3 in the country and won the Big Ten Championship Game with a 34-24 win over second-ranked Ohio State, which marked the Buckeyes' first loss in nearly two years. MSU went on to play in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day for the first time since 1988. The Spartans won that game by a 24-20 final over fifth-ranked Stanford.
For head coach Mark Dantonio, the result was his second Big Ten Coach of the Year award in four seasons. Another result, of course, is that Dantonio and the Spartans will enter 2014 with huge targets on their backs.
OFFENSE: MSU's quarterback, leading rusher and top receiver are all back, and the offensive line boasts plenty of experience despite replacing three starters.
Connor Cook demonstrated full command of the offense last season by throwing for 2,755 yards with 22 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions. Cook's top pass catcher, Tony Lippett, returns after catching 44 balls for 613 yards. Running back Jeremy Langford is a name to watch in 2014, coming off a season in which he averaged 102 rushing yards per game and scored 19 touchdowns.
Consider, MSU ranked only 80th in the nation in total offense a year ago and still won the Rose Bowl. With many of the same key players back in the mix, some improvement seems logical.
DEFENSE: In 2013, Michigan State ranked in the top-3 nationally in scoring defense (13.2 ppg), total defense (252.2 ypg), pass defense (165.6 ypg), pass efficiency defense (92.3) and run defense (86.6 ypg). In short, it was this side of the ball that was responsible for much of the team's success a year ago.
Looking ahead to 2014, the unit will undoubtedly miss decorated linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen. But there is still plenty of talent in the fold, starting up front with defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who won the Big Ten's Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year award a year ago. A finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award, Calhoun earned All-America honors in 2013 as well as First-Team All-Big Ten. Newcomers Malik McDowell and Demetrius Cooper are in line to help immediately.
In the secondary, gone is consensus All-American cornerback and Jim Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard, a first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2014 NFL Draft. Joining him in Cincinnati is Isaiah Lewis, a three-year starter for MSU at strong safety. That leaves all-conference safety Kurtis Drummond and two-year starting cornerback Trae Waynes as the two remaining members of the "No Fly Zone," the nickname coined by Dennard last year for the Spartans secondary.
"I don't think I've ever been in a place where we've had three players in the secondary be first-team all-conference," coach Dantonio said at Big Ten media day. "Kurtis Drummond, Trae Waynes. We've got other players back that have a lot of game experience as well. So it's going to be interesting to see how we respond."
SPECIAL TEAMS: Mike Sadler enters his senior season after earning a reputation as one of the league's better punters. Sadler ranked third in the Big Ten with an average of 42.5 yards on 76 punts, 33 of which were downed inside the 20 (only 9 touchbacks). At kicker, Michael Geiger converted 15-of-16 field goal attempts, but was not used for kickoffs.
OUTLOOK: The Spartans will begin the 2014 season ranked No. 8 in the national polls, another reminder that they are now the hunted.
"I think the Big Ten Conference, you've always got attention coming your way," coach Dantonio said. "And it's what you do with that and how you handle that. So what we've tried to talk about, really, is how do we handle success now."
Surely, the Ohio State Buckeyes have circled Nov. 8 (under the lights) on their calendars. Adding to the Spartans' degree of difficulty in the second week of the season is a road matchup on the other side of the country at No. 4 Oregon.
They'll host Michigan and Ohio State with a bye week in between.