Michigan State has won the Big Ten championship in two of the past three seasons, but the Spartans aren't getting much love this time around. The oxygen in the room is being sucked up by Eastern Division rivals Ohio State and Michigan, the conference co-favorites. The result is that a program with the recent pedigree of the Spartans is available at an 8-1 price simply to win a league championship. But can Michigan State do it again?
On the surface, it would like seem like a difficult mountain to climb. Head coach Mark Dantonio has to replace nine starters on offense alone. A program that prides itself on playing physical loses All-American offensive lineman Jack Conklin, along with defensive end Shilique Calhoun.
Even with those players on hand, the Spartans needed last-second wins over Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa to win last year's Big Ten title. Can they really survive a championship race without them?
Furthermore, while Dantonio has improved Michigan State's recruiting, they're still a long way from being in the "reload" mode that Urban Meyer has Ohio State in. Over the last four years, the Spartans' recruiting classes rank, on average, 22nd in the country.
The flip side of this though is that the Spartans still had room for improvement in 2015. The most obvious area was the secondary, where they ranked 76th in the nation against the pass. The problems in pass coverage hit their apex when they lost a controversial game at Nebraska. This season though, Michigan State returns three starters to the secondary.
Another area that can get better is special teams. Placekicker Michael Geiger is remembered for his game-winning field goal at Ohio State. What's forgotten is that there was a lot of inconsistency leading up to that. If Geiger can settle in and improve his 26-for-41 performance kicking field goals, Michigan State will be much better situated to win close games.
The new quarterback will be Tyler O'Connor, a fifth-year senior who already showed his moxie by stepping in for an injured Connor Cook and winning the Ohio State game. O'Connor did win that one in rain-soaked conditions, so it's tough to say how he'll fare in games where he really has to throw the football. But he certainly passed a big leadership test in that game.
O'Connor will have good wideouts to throw to - R.J. Shelton caught 43 balls. Freshman Donnie Corley is a highly regarded prospect that can have an immediate impact in the deep passing game, something the Spartans did not have last year. Running back L.J. Scott isn't officially considered a returning starter, but he was getting the most important carries by the end of the season last year.
And let's not forget the most important player - Malik McDowell is one of the best defensive tackles in the country and will help keep that physical Spartan defense rolling. McDowell underscores the importance of always first evaluating the quality of the players who are on hand rather than the quality of those who have left.
None of this is to suggest Michigan State will be as good as they were last year. But last year, the biggest games were on the road. In 2016, both Michigan and Ohio State have to come to East Lansing. The first of those is the visit from Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines on October 29, so there's time for Dantonio to get the new starters up to speed.
The key game we'd suggest looking it isn't even a conference game - it's a road game with Notre Dame on September 17. That will give us some insight as to how Michigan State will compete with good teams. It also may be important if the division race comes down to a three-way tiebreaker. If Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State all split with each other and tie for first place then the berth in the conference championship game goes to the team with the higher ranking at the end of the regular season. If Michigan State can beat Notre Dame they'll have a shot at being that team.
And if Michigan State wins the East, they would enter the Big Ten Championship Game as a favorite. A September win over Notre Dame likely won't change the 8-1 price, unless Michigan or Ohio State stumble. If the Spartans can win that game, look to invest in them as a dark horse in the Big Ten race.