Big thanks to Chris Vannini over at The Only Colors, SB Nation's MSU blog. Check them out if you want. They are pretty cool, and won't bite. Chris answered some questions for us, and we answered some for him too!
1. MSU went 7-6 last season but played in 9 games that were decided by 4 points or fewer, going 4-5 in said games. Do you think last season was just a string of bad luck or just good competition?
I think the finishes were a combination of things. A great defense couple with a bad offense is going to lead to low-scoring games, putting a team in so many situations. As for the finishes, a number simply come down to one play. Iowa had to make a FG in OT to force a second, where they won. Michigan won on a field goal in the final seconds, Nebraska won on a TD pass in the final seconds, MSU won at Wisconsin in OT on a TD pass. That's four games being decided on the final play from scrimmage.
The thing is, that elite defense allowed Michigan to drive to set up the FG after stopping them all afternoon. Nebraska drove the length of the field. The defense helped keep the games so close, but they also didn't come up with that final play that could have won a few more games.
2. Mark Dantonio enters his 7th season at the helm of the Spartans. He has enjoyed a lot of success, with only 1 "losing" season and a Big Ten Title (and that championship appearance against Russell Wilson's Wisconsin team). What has been the key to his success?
I think it's a sense of discipline. Now, MSU is typically one of the most-penalized teams in the Big Ten, and there was a string of off-the-field issues in the first few years, but the breakdowns and collapses that the John L. Smith era was known for are gone. Players play smart and confident within the system. They know what they're doing, and there's a sense of leadership all the way to the top.
MSU doesn't bring in top recruiting classes, but they're racking up All-B1G honors and regularly getting to the NFL. It's a mix of "coaching them up" and finding the talent that can be coached up. All in all, Dantonio was the perfect remedy for a program in a downspiral coming off the John L. and Bobby Williams years.
3. Le'Veon Bell and William Gholston both bolted for the NFL last season. As huge playmakers on both side of the ball, who looks to step up for them?
At running back, it's going to be a group of guys. The returning guys were so underwhelming in spring that linebacker Riley Bullough (brother of Max) moved there and is the top guy entering fall. But there are some talented freshmen (Gerald Holmes, R.J. Shelton, Delton Williams) coming in who surely will compete for playing time. This is similar to 2009, when Javon Ringer left and a group of leftovers and true freshmen carried the load (and had a better yards per carry). I expect the same this year. MSU wasn't a good running *team* last year. I expect them to be better, with the load being distributed.
4. What is the overall outlook for Michigan State this season?
The schedule sets up for a very fast start. If they're not at least 7-1 when Michigan comes to East Lansing, there could be problems. Even a few years ago, 2013 was set up to be a great season, but the underwhelming performance of Andrew Maxwell and the early loss of Le'Veon Bell hurt that outlook. Still, anything less than eight wins will be a major disappointment, and if they can get a few breaks and win the close games, they could get to double-digit wins and reach the Big Ten championship game.
5. What are your thoughts on the "New Big Ten" with divisions, Rutgers and Maryland joining, and just keeping up with the SEC in general?
Bringing in those two schools just sucks. I mean, I know from a money standpoint it will bring in a ton, but a conference dealing with a perception problem looks like it sold out even more for money, which it did. Bringing in Nebraska was great, because it was about competition (and championship game money). This is purely a money grab, and I don't think there's a single Big Ten fan who likes the addition of those schools.
In terms of the division split, I think MSU fans would have preferred to be in the West with budding rival Wisconsin and away from Ohio State (assuming MSU would play U-M every year anyway), but MSU has wanted to become a top-tier program, and facing those two schools every year will be a way to measure up. Does it hurt MSU's chances to win the division? Sure. But the program isn't going to fade into nothing, as some would have you believe.