"2012 was the year of the inches that we didn't come up with," head coach Mark Dantonio said at Big Ten Media Day. We sort of feel like our football team has a little bit of an edge to (it) right now."
Michigan State did manage to win five of its six true road games, with a 12-10 loss at rival Michigan on Oct. 20 the lone exception. The Spartans also finished out the season on a positive note, topping TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, 17-16.
OFFENSE: Last year, the Michigan State offense leaned heavily on all- conference running back Le'Veon Bell, who was drafted in the second round of this past April's NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Redshirt freshman Riley Bullough (6-2, 230), a converted linebacker, tops the 2013 preseason depth chart. Also splitting first-team reps in camp has been junior Nick Hill (5-8, 198), the "lightning" to Bullough's "thunder."
After sitting behind quarterback Kirk Cousins in 2010 and 2011, Andrew Maxwell stepped into a starting role last season as a junior. However, he completed only 52.5 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions, as MSU finished the year ranked 108th in scoring offense (20.0 ppg). Sophomore Connor Cook emerged in the spring, but Dantonio put to rest any speculation of a quarterback controversy during his media day comments.
"Right now Andrew is our number one quarterback," Dantonio said. "He's got a great deal of experience and a lot of confidence right now. With that said, Connor Cook has played as everybody knows, and I think that's a big positive for us."
While Maxwell figures to have the reins loosened a bit in his second year, finding a way to improve upon a woeful 44-percent red zone percentage is paramount if the team hopes to put some more points on the board.
Five offensive lineman with starting experience return, as do top wideouts Keith Mumphery (42 receptions, 515 yards, TD) and Bennie Fowler (41 rec, 524 yds, 4 TDs).
DEFENSE: Seven starters return to a defensive unit that ranked fourth in the nation in total defense (274.4 ypg) and ninth in scoring (16.3 ppg allowed). The defense was particularly dominant coming out of halftime, as it allowed a total of only 27 third-quarter points in 13 games. The coaching staff foresees more good things to come in 2013.
"We have competition on this football team," Dantonio said. "We've got a lot of guys back with experience, too many to talk about, really. The defensive side of the ball is loaded with seven starts, back with a lot of players ready to make their mark."
Senior Max Bullough enters his third season as the team's starting middle linebacker after racking up a team-high 111 tackles (12.5 TFL) last year. He'll be flanked on the outside by Denicos Allen (79 tackles, 10.0 TFL) and either Taiwan Jones (6-3, 250) or the ultra-athletic Jairus Jones (6-1, 213).
Also back in the fold are starting safeties Isaiah Lewis (80 tackles, 2 INT, 6 PBU) and Kurtis Drummond (53 tackles, 2 INT, 4 INT).
Up front, replacing all-conference defensive end William Gholston will be no easy task, but junior Marcus Rush has started every game so far of his college career and is coming off a promising season (7.5 TFL).
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Spartans are breaking in a new kicker in redshirt freshman Kevin Cronin. Three-year starter Dan Conroy has moved on after a rather shaky season that saw him convert 23-of-32 field goals (71.9 percent) in 2012. At punter, Mike Sadler returns after averaging a healthy 43.3 yards on 79 punts. Sadler had a long of 70 yards and pinned a whopping 31 kicks inside the opponent's 20.
OUTLOOK: Ultimately, the Spartans must find a way to close out some of those tight games they wound up losing last season if they hope to contend for a Legends Division crown after a 3-5 finish in conference play. Coach Dantonio does not see any reason that cannot happen. In fact, he said this year's mantra for his team is "Chase it."
"It will always be our hope to chase the dream and go to the Rose Bowl, to become a champion at the highest level, to get into the championship format," he said. "And while we were close last year, we lost some games to some great football teams by very narrow margins."
No Bell in the backfield means this is now Maxwell's team, at least on the offensive side of the ball. Maxwell has weapons around him, but is there enough balance? The defense, if healthy, figures to once again be among the nation's best with Bullough leading the charge.