That means, in my book, any range of record between 6-6 and 11-1 is feasible. Breaking even would be taking a step backward and finishing with one loss nearly unthinkable.
In the end, the focus on finishing pays off: I'm marking the Spartans down for three toss-up wins, resulting in a 9-3 record overall.
In short, here's why the Green and White will at least improve on their record this year: the offense should improve slightly, the defense tremendously.
First, the O. MSU has a quality returning quarterback, one of the best in the Big Ten. They return their feature running back, arguably the best in the Big Ten. Four guys with starting experience return to the O-line, two of which have a shot to make the League next year. The passing game is the only shaky ground on offense, and from what I've seen out of Mark Dell in fall camp, along with the infusion of a couple of talented frosh and what looks to be good depth, the receiver position appears sound.
The time is right for the defense win some games. Last season the D almost (but not quite) pulled off a miracle in Columbus; they couldn't stop Chad Henne when they needed to; and Wisconsin and Northwestern had too much firepower. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's aggressive system should be even more productive and disruptive with a squad returning nine players that have starting experience.
The tackles will be improved, with Justin Kershaw, Oren Wilson and Antonio Jeremiah a formidable interior rotation. At end, Trevor Anderson should do at least as well as Ervin Baldwin and I actually like Brandon Long more at this point than I did Jonal Saint-Dic at the same time last year.
The linebackers and secondary are units of strength for MSU. Outside of cornerback, the depth chart can look pretty thin, but the starting units have loads of talent. At LB, Greg Jones is the real deal and a fast-rising star. Eric Gordon, Brandon Denson and Adam Decker add to an athletic rotation and Ryan Allison is a wildcard waiting to prove himself with big plays on gameday.
At corner, another strong rotation includes Chris L. Rucker, Ashton Henderson, Ross Weaver and, hopefully at some point, Kendell Davis-Clark. KDC is filling in for the hard-hitting Roderick Jenrette at free safety, opposite All-Big Ten-caliber Otis Wiley, but could rejoin his compatriots at CB should Jenrette return to the team. Granted, safety appears a little thin (hence KDC's switch) but the effects appear to be mitigated by an abundance of quality CBs.
The ever-important kicking games, so vital in the latter stages of tight contests, should be sound with productive returning starters Todd Boleski (kickoffs), Aaron Bates (punts) and Brett Swenson (field goals).
Now, a closer look, game-by-game.
Why the Spartans lose: A Big Ten team going on the road to California and winning in late August against a team looking to redeem itself after a late season collapse last year is a difficult task.
MSU loses a tight toss-up: 0-1 overall record
Game 2 vs Eastern Michigan (Sept. 6)
Middling MAC team. Nuff said.
MSU sure win: 1-1.
Game 3 vs Florida Atlantic (Sept. 13)
In Florida, I'd be a little more wary of a good MAC-level team. At home, it's a lock.
MSU sure win: 2-1
Game 4 vs Notre Dame (Sept. 20)
Why the Spartans win: Despite recent recruiting rankings, the Spartans have better talent, as they proved last year. Until ND finds a way to pull one out against a superior opponent, it's a Spartan win.
Why the Spartans lose: An improved Irish squad takes revenge for last season's debacle overall and MSU's dominance over the past half decade.
MSU wins a close toss-up at home: 3-1
Game 5 at Indiana (Sept. 27)
Could be a trap game after an emotional week against Notre Dame, but the Spartans proved last year, in a blowout, that they have the better athletes. Plus, without James Hardy, the Hoosiers will have a hard time improving.
MSU sure win: 4-1 (1-0 Big Ten)
Game 6 vs Iowa (Oct. 4)
The Spartans avenge a "should've won" game from a year ago for homecoming.
MSU sure win: 5-1 (2-0)
Game 7 at Northwestern (Oct. 11)
Another revenge game for MSU. This year the Spartans return the favor and steal one in Evanston.
MSU sure win: 6-1 (3-0)
Game 8 vs Ohio State (Oct. 18)
The Buckeyes are on another level. Hopefully the Spartans can keep it close two years in a row.
MSU sure loss: 6-2 (3-1)
Game 9 at Michigan (Oct. 25)
Why the Spartans win: It's been 18 years since a win in Ann Arbor and the timing is right for MSU to snap a six game losing streak.
Why the Spartans lose: The reverse of the Notre Dame game — until MSU does it on the field, it's hard to see.
MSU wins a toss-up: 7-2 (4-1)
Game 10 vs Wisconsin (Nov. 1)
Why the Spartans win: They proved last year in Madison they can hang with the Badgers and pull out a close one at home.
Why the Spartans lose: The Badgers have established themselves as a consistent Big Ten contender and are likely the best after OSU. The last game in a brutal stretch, after an emotional week against Michigan, proves too much.
MSU loses a competitive toss-up: 7-3 (4-2)
Game 11 vs Purdue (Nov. 8)
Like the Hoosiers, MSU showed their superiority against Purdue (on the road) last year. Joe Tiller's final contest against MSU carries some weight, but late season swoons are a thing of the past.
MSU sure win: 8-3 (5-2)
Game 12 at Penn State (Nov. 22)
Why the Spartans win: MSU has turned a page and goes into Happy Valley to defeat a Penn State program that is looking more-and-more like a team in transition.
Why the Spartans lose: The Nittany Lions win one for Joe-pa in what is perhaps his final regular season game.
MSU surpasses expectations and wins a second toss-up game on the road: 9-3 (6-2)
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