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2017 Week 1 Preview: Bowling Green Falcons at Michigan State Spartans

After disastrous 2016 collapses, programs look to start the new year 1-0.

Bowling Green v Ohio State Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

In 2015, Bowling Green and Michigan State stood on top of their conferences as champions. In 2016, the teams combined for a 7-17 record.

Which version of Bowling Green and which version of Michigan State will we see in 2017? Plenty of question marks head into this game, but both teams seemed poised for bounce back seasons.

The two teams last collided in 2007 during Mark Dantonio's first year at the helm in East Lansing. The rookie coach's squad won 28-17, and shortly after, Dantonio built a modern power in the Big Ten. Before 2017's 3-9 result, Michigan State posted five seasons of 11 wins or greater in a six-year span, including two outright conference titles and a playoff appearance.

Bowling Green has not been gifted with the same consistency. The Falcons have cycled through four different head coaches within the last decade, with Dave Clawson and Dino Babers electing to take Power Five jobs as a result of success in the MAC. Two conference championships were won in 2013 and 2015, however. The Falcons' current second-year head coach, Mike Jinks, is ready to bring Bowling Green back to the top of the MAC after plenty of growing pains during the 2016 season.

Players to Watch

James Morgan, QB, Bowling Green

After a historic 77-3 loss to Memphis, Morgan inherited the starting quarterback position for the remainder of the season. As a freshman, Morgan performed decently and has shown potential to mold into one of the conference's top gunslingers in 2017. Morgan experienced a career-day when he tossed for five touchdowns on 335 yards in a heartbreaking loss to archrival Toledo last October. The Wisconsin native possesses a cannon arm and is more than capable of putting up Big 12-like passing numbers but he must limit his turnover output. In the 11 games Morgan played last season, he threw interceptions in 10 of them — amounting to 15 interceptions on 326 attempts for the year. Bowling Green lost three of these games by just a single possession, so if Morgan reduces his turnover numbers, the Falcons can be placed in more beneficial position to emerge victorious in close competitions.

Scott Miller, WR, Bowling Green

Miller is Bowling Green's ultimate multipurpose player. The 5-foot-10-inch receiver can line up almost anywhere on the gridiron and displays a bevy of talents. Miller's primary function is to serve as Bowling Green's possession receiver, taking advantage of open-field opportunities on screen passes. He has a reliable set of hands and will be called upon to field kicks and possibly punts on special teams. Miller caught 10 touchdown passes for the Falcons in 2016, so he will likely remain the team's number one scoring option at the beginning of the season. The Spartan secondary is full of young cornerbacks, so Miller can utilize his experience to his advantage to help bolster Bowling Green's offense in East Lansing.

Chris Frey, OLB, Michigan State

Frey is one of the four names on the short list of returning Spartan defenders. The team captain led the green and white with 96 total tackles last season, including four in the backfield. As a senior, Frey will assume a large leadership role for the young Michigan State defense, a unit that allowed 27.8 points per game a season ago. Without defensive standouts including Riley Bullough and Malik McDowell, Frey must progress as the team's primary run stopper early in the Spartans' season.

L.J. Scott, RB, Michigan State

Since former Louisville running back also named L.J. Scott transferred to Eastern Kentucky, that leaves us with just one running back named L.J. Scott left in the FBS. Scott, the Spartans' junior running back, nearly topped the millennium mark on the ground last season. He finished with 994 rushing yards, showing improvement throughout the season. He rushed for 100 yards on five occasions — four occurring in the second half of the season. Scott's finest performance transpired against 2016 College Football Playoff participant Ohio State, when he rushed for 160 yards against a top-15 run defense. The Spartans fell on a game-deciding two-point conversion to their rival from Columbus, but Scott's excellence against a premier opponent showed the great amount of potential he has in store. Bowling Green lost former elite run stopper Austin Valdez as a grad transfer for Syracuse, so the Falcons must find another weapon to stifle Scott. Also, Michigan State may expand its depth and dispatch Gerald Holmes or Madre London, two more-than-capable running backs that could prove dangerous against Bowling Green's problematic defense.

Keys to the Game

Attack the Spartan secondary early and often

If Bowling Green wants a chance to knock off the former Big Ten power, James Morgan must unleash his full potential on Michigan State's defensive backs. Only one starter, sophomore cornerback Justin Layne, returns to Dantonio's secondary. The Spartans' secondary showed signs of struggle to close 2016, yielding 376 passing yards and four touchdowns to Penn State's quarterback Trace McSorley in the team's final contest. Morgan can throw the deep ball and he retains an array of targets including Miller, senior Teo Redding, and Oregon State transfer receiver Datrin Guyton. All are capable pass catchers and can space the field to establish Bowling Green's offense early. Although a sophomore, Morgan should be the most experienced quarterback in this game (compared to Michigan State's Brian Lewerke) and must find comfort in the pocket to prevent turnovers on longer passes. If the Falcons want to steal this game on the road, padding an early lead is important, especially given how the defense performed against formidable opponents in 2016.

Win special teams

Bowling Green's punter Joe Davidson is as talented as any punter in the nation. The two-time All-MAC selection should rank high on Ray Guy Award watch lists all season long, and his campaign for the award begins week one. If Michigan State's offense underperforms as the unit did a year ago, Davidson's punts could play a significant role. Giving the Spartans unfavorable field position and forcing redshirt sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke and his inexperienced offense to gain additional yards places Michigan State at a slight disadvantage. In the kicking department, Bowling Green sports one of the nation's most talked about place-kickers of the fall. Junior Jake Suder kicked a 53-yard field goal in practice in front of a large crowd of teammates with a full scholarship on the line. He earned the reward and immediately celebrated with his fellow Falcon athletes. This occurrence is a fantastic sign that Suder can kick under enormous amounts of pressure, should the game come down to the wire. Michigan State's depth chart lists two kicker possibilities: Brett Scanlon and Matt Coghlin. Neither have attempted a college field goal, so experience once again favors the Falcons.

Game Notes

Bowling Green and Michigan State will square off at noon EST on Saturday. Two other Big Ten-MAC showdowns will also be slated at the same time period (Penn State-Akron and Illinois-Ball State). This game is viewable on ESPNU and will commence in Spartan Stadium in East Lansing. Michigan State is currently listed as 17-point favorites.

Prediction

Bowling Green began 2016 kickoff weekend in the worst way possible. After owning an impressive 7-0 lead on Ohio State, the Falcons fell 77-10 in an all-around abysmal performance to follow-up a 2015 MAC Championship title. Jinks should enter more prepared for this opener and luckily faces a team in the midst of struggle. Michigan State is a difficult team to predict though. After a three-year stretch of 36-5, Sparty is searching for its identity once again. The lack of experience on the team certainly does not help, but the Spartans are equipped with a phenomenal coach in Dantonio and young athletes with star potential. The deciding factor in this matchup will likely be L.J. Scott, who is primed for a monstrous performance on the ground to lift Michigan State over Bowling Green.

Prediction: Michigan State 31, Bowling Green 20