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Big Ten preview: Michigan State Spartans

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Michigan State wide receiver Felton Davis III (84) takes a first-quarter pass for a first down against Alabama in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015. (Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS)

Michigan State wide receiver Felton Davis III (84) takes a first-quarter pass for a first down against Alabama in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015. (Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS)

Location: East Lansing, Michigan

2015 record: 12-2

Head coach: Mark Dantonio

2016 record so far: 1-0

Record vs. OSU since 2006: 3-5 (1-0 in Big Ten championship)

What’s happened so far in 2016

Michigan State welcomed back only 10 returning starters, resulting in quite the inexperienced on-the-field product Week 1 against Furman. The Spartans subsequently struggled, but were able to hold on for a 28-13 victory. With its first win of the season in hand, the team enjoyed an early open date prior to their Week 3 showdown with longtime rival Notre Dame.

Key offensive player

The Spartans best player on offense might be sophomore running back L.J. Scott, but the overall success of the unit lies on the shoulders of fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor. Being the heir to the starting quarterback position after Connor Cook, O’Connor appeared up to the task against Furman in Week 1, passing for 190 yards and a trio of touchdowns. What he lacks in premier arm strength, O’Connor more than makes up for with game preparation and throwing accuracy. His biggest test before the Buckeyes will be Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish’s defense has looked anything but airtight, so we should get a better idea of how far O’Connor can really take the Spartans.

Key defensive player

Junior nose tackle Malik McDowell almost decided against joining Michigan State before signing with the team back in 2014. McDowell chose to stick with the Spartans, and he’s progressed into one of the finest defensive linemen in the country. A versatile force in the trenches, McDowell compiled 4.5 sacks and 41 total tackles last season. Michigan State’s defense is built around the Detroit native, and there’s not many plays that won’t feel his impact in some capacity. McDowell has potential to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft with another big year.

Weaknesses

For the past few years at Michigan State, the most glaring weakness within the program has consistently been the lowly secondary play. This season the front seven are again the strength of the Spartans’ defense, while the back end looks no better than years prior. If the team wants to make a return trip to the College Football Playoff, its defensive backs will need to improve across the board. Junior quarterback DeShone Kizer and the rest of Notre Dame’s high-flying offense will challenge Michigan State’s secondary.

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