April 23, 2024

Michigan State's Justin Layne, left, breaks up a pass intended for Penn State's Juwan Johnson (84) during the third quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan State won 27-24. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

After a three-win season in 2016 Michigan State was left for dead by the college football world. Then the Spartans surprised all the haters with a 10-win campaign in 2017. With the return of an experienced quarterback, five starters up front on offense, a veteran running back, game-changing receivers, a tenacious defense and a reliable place kicker, you have to wonder why the Spartans aren’t perceived as the favorite in the Big 10 East for this fall.

Team strengths: The defense and receivers. Nine starters return from a defense that finished No. 7 last season in total defense. They attack, force turnovers and set the tone for this team. It’ll be almost impossible to run the ball consistently against Michigan States’ front seven and the secondary is full of young studs. The Spartans’ passing attack will be one of the best in the Big 10 with Felton Davis, Cody White and Darrell Stewart returning at receiver. The trio combined for 140 receptions, 1,767 yards and 15 touchdowns last season.

Team weaknesses: Depth at running back. LJ Scott is a three-year starter in the backfield, but he has yet to get through a regular season without being sidelined for a game or two because of injuries. Scott no longer has Gerald Holmes to pick up the slack when he goes down and the Spartans will rely on a sophomore who has 10 career rushing yards to fill in his void.

Players to watch: Quarterback Brian Lewerke, wide receiver Davis, linebacker Joe Bachie and free safety David Dowell. Lewerke came out of nowhere and took the conference by storm throwing for nearly 2,800 yards and 20 touchdowns. He has mobility and is a tough hard-nosed runner that gives 100 percent effort to move the chains. Davis can stretch the field on opposing secondaries and had monster games against Northwestern, Iowa, Penn State and Washington State last season. Tackling machine Bachie is the heart and soul of the Spartans’ defense and made plays all over the field. Dowell provides great run support and had five interceptions last season, including two apiece against Michigan and Penn State.

The schedule: Not too bad. Michigan State should be 5-0 after the month of September then travels to Happy Valley for a showdown with Penn State. The Spartans get Northwestern, Michigan and Ohio State at home and avoids Iowa and Wisconsin from the west.

My take: Don’t be surprised if the Spartans represent the East in the Big 10 Championship game. This team is loaded with experience and with the lack of love from the media they will come out of the gates with a chip on their shoulders. This defense will impose their will on opponents and Lewerke will show the nation that Michigan State is back in a big way.