2013 Season Previews: Michigan State Spartans

This is what a tackling machine looks like - Mike Carter-US PRESSWIRE

The Illini will host Michigan State on October 26 for Homecoming.

Do you know who you're taking to the Homecoming Dance this year? I don't, there's this one girl I want to ask, but I'm just so shy and gee golly I don't know if she even likes me. I'm thinking I might just fly solo and stalk the dance floor like a lion in the grass studying a herd of African elk in search of prey.

I do know who the Illini will be taking to Homecoming this year. It's Michigan State, as they'll be in town on October 26.

So what should we know about Illinois' homecoming date? Let's find out.

Basics

Name: Michigan State Spartans
From: East Lansing, Michigan
2012 Record: 7-6 (3-5)
Returning starters: Eight offense, seven defense, one specialist

Head Coach

When Michigan State comes to town there will be a man in a green windbreaker or jacket on the sideline wearing an angry scowl on his face. Throughout the entire game, no matter what happens, this man's facial expression will not change. He will forever look like he is judging you and judging you harshly. You will feel worthless looking into this man's cold, dead eyes.

You will know Mark Dantonio.

It's Dantonio's seventh season at Michigan State, and the first six have gone pretty well. He's compiled a record of 51-28 with two 11-win seasons, a Big Ten title and a Legends Division title. And he's done all this the way you would expect a man who has coached under Earle Bruce, Jim Tressel and Nick Saban to do so. With defense, defense and an offense meant to bore its opponent to near death before the defense comes back on the field and delivers the deathblow.

History With Illinois

As Big Ten members these two teams have met plenty of times in the past, though since Penn State began playing in the Big Ten 20 years ago the two teams have only met 12 times, and this is the first time they'll have played since 2010. In those 12 meetings since 1993 Michigan State has absolutely dominated the series, going 11-1.

The only time the Illini won in that span was a 23-20 victory in East Lansing in 2006. Yes, that's right, the only time the Illini have beaten Michigan State in the last 20 years was in a season in which the Illini finished 2-10. And if you don't remember that game, the Illini had built a 20-10 lead heading into the fourth quarter only to blow that lead. Though after Michigan State tied the game 20-20 with 2:46 left to play the Illini would go 58 yards in two minutes and 38 seconds to set up the game-winning39-yard field goal from Jason Reda with six seconds left.

Michigan State leads the all-time series with a mark of 25-17-2, and that includes a 12-9-1 record in Champaign.

What Do We Know About The Offense?

Besides that it's pretty much non-existent? Listen, the Spartans averaged only 20 points per game last season, which would be pathetic if it weren't for the Illini doing even worse. Still, this is a ball-control offense that could only manage to average 4.88 yards per play last season while leading the Big Ten in average time of possession at over 33 minutes per game.

So, in other words, they're on the field a lot but don't do much of anything while their out there.

Further complicating matters heading into 2013 is the fact that running back Le'Veon Bell, tight end Dion Sims and kicker Dan Conroy are all gone. Those three players were a large part of the little that this team did on offense. Andrew Maxwell returns at quarterback, but I'm not convinced he'll keep the starting job from Connor Cook or even freshman Damion Terry. The only quarterback with a lower passing efficiency in the Big Ten last season than Maxwell was Nate Scheelhaase, though Maxwell was betrayed by receivers who dropped roughly 50 passes per game.

The Michigan State offense is not the part of the team you need to worry about.

How About The Defense?

You should definitely worry about the defense. This is the side of the ball that the Spartans have hung their hat on in recent years, and even with the departure of William Gholston, this unit is going to be just fine.

This was the best unit in the conference last year, and it wasn't one-dimensional. The Spartans defense led the Big Ten in yards against per play, rushing yards against per attempt, defensive passing efficiency, rushing touchdowns against, passing touchdowns against, third down defense and touchdown percentage in the red zone.

They are really fucking good at keeping you off the scoreboard. Only four opponents even managed to get to 20 points last season, and none of them scored more than 28. And while Gholston is gone guys like Denicos Allen, Max Bullough, and Darqueze Dennard are all back, so I really don't see much of a drop-off in 2013.

Who On This Team Should I Be Aware Of?

We talk about the Illini linebackers being a position of strength on the team, but they don't have shit on the Michigan State linebacking corps. Last season Denicos Allen and Max Bullough combined for 190 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and 9 passes defensed (intercepted and broken up).

Both work well in both run and pass defense.

And if they aren't enough there's Darqueze Dennard who was named First Team All-Big Ten last season at the cornerback position with 10 passes defensed.

Where Will They Finish In The Big Ten?

If the Spartans can find any kind of consistency and success on offense this is a team that can win the Big Ten. However, while some people saw last year's 7-6 mark as a bit of an outlier following two 11-win seasons, I'm not entirely sure that's the case. I think it was just a result of a terrible offense that needs a injection of new talent at the skill positions.

Because I'm not sure that talent is on the roster or ready just yet I have to say the Spartans will finish third in the Legends Division at best, and probably fourth.

Can The Illini Win This Game?

It's not likely, and given the recent history we probably shouldn't expect all that much in this game. However, the idea of Illinois knocking off Michigan State at home might not be as crazy as it looks on the surface.

When I've tried to figure out ways that the Illini can get to a bowl game this season, this is one of those games where I've smelled the possible upset. Because while the Illini will have played Wisconsin the week before in Champaign, they'll have also had a bye week before that.

However, for Michigan State this game will be the fourth game of a stretch in which the Spartans play five straight weeks. Now the three games before this aren't exactly a murderer's row as it's Iowa, Indiana and Purdue, but when you play football for four straight weeks, you start to get a bit sore.

But what's more important than any of that is the fifth straight game. The one that comes after Illinois.

It's Michigan.

So not only might the Spartans be a bit beat up and tired by the time they get to Champaign, but they could also be looking ahead to the Wolverines the following week. Add all that up and I feel like the Spartans are ripe for an upset in Champaign.

Follow The Champaign Room on Twitter at @Champaign_Room and Like us on Facebook. You can follow Tom Fornelli on Twitter at @TomFornelli.

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