College Football Countdown: No. 12 Michigan State

The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

Today at No. 12: Michigan State

Coach: Mark Dantoni (44-22, sixth season; 62-39 overall)

2011 record: 11-3 (7-1 in Big Ten Conference, first in Legends Division)

Look back: Michigan State has gone through an unprecedented run the past two seasons with back-to-back 11 win seasons and a co-Big Ten championship in 2010. However, the Spartans have failed to reach the pinnacle of the Big Ten, a trip to the Rose Bowl, losing out both times to Wisconsin. Last season, Michigan State captured the Legends Division title and earned a trip to the first ever Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis where the Spartans lost to Wisconsin, 42-39. The team finished its season in Tampa at the Outback Bowl, where Michigan State rallied to beat Georgia, 33-30 in triple-overtime.

Offensive starters lost/returning: 7/5

Defensive starters lost/returning: 3/8

Key losses: QB Kirk Cousins, RB Edwin Baker, WR B.J. Cunningham, DT Jerel Worthy

Top returnees: RB Le’Veon Bell, CB Johnny Adams, LB Denicos Allen, DE William Gholston

Strengths: Michigan State’s success can be tracked to its stunning defense which was ranked sixth in the country last season in total defense (277.43). The unit returns eight starters from that squad led by defensive end William Gholston and linebacker Denicos Allen. Both were key to disputing offenses last season with Allen leading the team in sacks (11) and Gholston leading the team in tackles for loss (11). The secondary will be led by cornerback Johnny Adams, who led the team in pass breakups (6) and was tied for second with three interceptions. Joining Adams is corner Darqueze Dennard, who was tied for first on the team with four interceptions. … The offensive line returns four of the five starters from last season. … Running back Le’Veon Bell led the team in rushing last season (948 yards, 13 touchdowns) after taking over the starting duties midseason.

Weaknesses: The offense has major questions at quarterback and wide receivers. Junior Andrew Maxwell takes over the starting duties at quarterback after spending much of the past couple of seasons as backup to Kirk Cousins. Experience will be a factor for Maxwell who has seen limited action. … Dantonio’s main concern has to be replacing close to 3,000 yards of offense and 17 total touchdowns that are gone with the team’s top four receivers from last year’s squad. Much like Maxwell, Bennie Fowler and Tony Lippett must learn on the job if the Spartans are to be successful.

Outlook: Much like in the past, Michigan State will be led by its solid defense. It will be that unit that the team will rely on early on as the offense try’s to develop an identity. The schedule won’t be easy with a season-opener against Boise State and then home games against Notre Dame, Ohio State and Iowa. Road matchups with Michigan and Wisconsin in late October could determine just how far the Spartans can go this season.

2012 Schedule

Aug. 31 Boise State

Sept. 8 at Central Michigan

Sept. 15 Notre Dame

Sept. 22 Eastern Michigan

Sept. 29 Ohio State

Oct. 6 at Indiana

Oct. 13 Iowa

Oct. 20 at Michigan

Oct. 27 at Wisconsin

Nov. 3 Nebraska

Nov. 17 Northwestern

No.v. 24 at Minnesota

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