As the dog days of summer arrive, the longing for football becomes all the more intense. Well, we here at CSNChicago.com are here to provide you with a summertime football fix. Over 40 days, CSN's Vinnie Duber will have 40 posts pondering the biggest questions heading into the 2014 Big Ten football season — the B1G 40 questions. Be sure to check out the entire B1G 40 series at csnchicago.com/big-ten.
It's hard for Spartans fans to think about what could've been last season.
Take away a rough loss to Notre Dame, and Michigan State is perfect and possibly heading to the national championship game following a Big Ten title game win over undefeated Ohio State. Yes, the Spartans will take their Rose Bowl victory — the program's first since the 1987 season — but playing for a national championship? It would've been sweet.
The biggest question mark in East Lansing heading into the 2014 campaign seems to be where they can go from here. A Big Ten title defense certainly seems possible. But what then? Could Michigan State redeem itself from last season's costly trip-up vs. Notre Dame and truly go undefeated this season and play for a national title? There are few reasons as to why they can't.
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Yes, there are losses. The defense, which at 13.2 points per game was not just the tops in the Big Ten but one of the best in the entire nation, has seen a few top playmakers depart. Gone is cornerback Darqueze Dennard, the Jim Thorpe Award winner who became the No. 24 pick in the NFL Draft. Gone is linebacker Max Bullough, the defensive leader. Gone is linebacker Denicos Allen. Gone is safety Isaiah Lewis, another member of that "No Fly Zone" secondary. But, at the same time, this defense was beyond elite last season, and big-time defensive end Shilique Calhoun and top-flight safety Kurtis Drummond both return. The same is true for defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who helmed that dominant unit a year ago.
And on the offense, the losses are fewer and not as big a deal. Yes, the receiving corps is without a few key pass-catchers. But quarterback Connor Cook is primed to take the next step toward becoming an elite college quarterback. Running back Jeremy Langford returns as one of the conference's best. And the offensive line is stacked with top talent, like center Jack Allen, whose name popped up on numerous preseason award watch lists.
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So with a bevy of talent back in the fold from a team that impressed all year long last season, what will be the hurdles to doing it all over again?
Look to the schedule, where the Spartans have a huge test right out the box. Week 2 brings a road trip to the Pacific Northwest and a battle with Oregon, and the Ducks should again be contenders for the Pac-12 title and beyond. That's a massive challenge for the Spartans, who even with dominant defense would have to weather Oregon's typical offensive onslaught. Of course, the Spartans handled the Pac-12's Stanford in the Rose Bowl. After that, the schedule's toughest moments come in conference play, and surely green-and-white fans have Nov. 8 circled on the calendar. That's the date of the showdown with the Buckeyes in East Lansing. Many are predicting Ohio State to reach the College Football Playoff, but the Spartans will have an awful lot to say about that in the rematch of last year's conference title game between the now-division foes.
If Michigan State can make it past both or even just one of those teams, a trip to the College Football Playoff could certainly be in reach. Back-to-back Big Ten championships are definitely a possibility.