Yahoo Sports' Top 25: No. 11 Michigan State

Yahoo Sports
Michigan State quarterback <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/players/257176/" data-ylk="slk:Brian Lewerke">Brian Lewerke</a> (14) threw 20 touchdowns in 2017. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke (14) threw 20 touchdowns in 2017. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 college football preseason top 25. A poll that’s guaranteed to be wrong like every other preseason poll out there. Every day in August we’re going to reveal a new team in our top 25 culminating with the reveal of our No. 1 team on Aug. 25. And yes, it’s a team from the SEC.

Previously: No. 25 South Carolina, No. 24 Utah, No. 23 West Virginia, No. 22 Central Florida, No. 21 Texas, No. 20 USC, No. 19 Florida State, No. 18 Oregon, No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 16 TCU, No. 15 Michigan, No. 14 Boise State, No. 13 Notre Dame, No. 12 Auburn

No. 11 Michigan State

2017 record: 10-3 (7-2 Big Ten)
Returning starters: 10 offense, 9 defense

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Everyone’s back (almost)

The same Michigan State team that you saw in 2017 is pretty much going to be the Michigan State team you see in 2018. Quarterback Brian Lewerke is back. Running back LJ Scott is back. The team’s top three receivers are back. The top four tacklers and 10 of the top 11 tacklers are back. Coach Mark Dantonio is returning for a 12th year with the Spartans.

When you’re trying to figure out whether RB Madre London — who averaged less than 4 yards a carry — WR Hunter Rison (19 catches) or LB Chris Frey (55 tackles) is the biggest departure from the 2017 team, that’s a good thing. Nothing against either of those players. But their production is all easily replaceable.

Another seven-game improvement in the win column is impossible in 2018 simply because Michigan State doesn’t have seven games to improve upon. But double-digit wins are easily achievable with a group that’s gone from young to experienced in the span of just one bounceback season.

Is Brian Lewerke the best QB in the Big Ten?

The Big Ten is loaded with solid quarterbacks. Penn State has Trace McSorley. Northwestern has Clayton Thorson. Wisconsin, Alex Hornibrook. Nate Stanley is the starter at Iowa. Dwayne Haskins seems to be the guy at Ohio State. Shea Patterson will probably be the starter at Michigan.

Lewerke may be the best of the bunch. He completed 59 percent of his passes a year ago for 2,793 yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions and should improve upon those numbers in 2018. It’s not likely but also not insane to think that he could end the 2018 season as the top draft-eligible quarterback in the class.

“Very productive football player,” Dantonio said. “What he brings to the table, though, is the ability to stay calm and collected in times of uncertainty, I guess.”

“That’s what’s very impressive from day one when he started out there as a true redshirt freshman quarterback in ’16 before he was injured to last season. He just has that ability. He has the ability to get out of problems. Doesn’t take himself too seriously, which sometimes that’s a positive as well. And I think he has a great future ahead of him.”

Michigan State’s offense won’t reach the heights it did in 2014 when it averaged 43 points a game for the entire season. But asking the offense to come close to 30 points a game like it did in 2015 isn’t asking too much given the returning weapons on offense.

The East is loaded, but Michigan State got a great draw

Michigan State has the talent to stack up well with Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State. And it has the schedule that could potentially give it the edge over its two rivals.

Both Ohio State and Michigan visit East Lansing in 2018. Given that Michigan State has beaten Michigan in two of the three years Jim Harbaugh has been with the Wolverines, that’s a nice in-state edge. That only Michigan win came in 2016 as Michigan State was 3-9.

Michigan State has a non-conference schedule edge too, at least in terms of going undefeated outside of the conference. While Michigan plays Notre Dame in Week 1 and Ohio State draws TCU in Week 3, Michigan State’s toughest game is at Arizona State in Week 2. A win over Arizona State and stumbles by UM and OSU will mean Michigan State is ahead of both of them in the polls by the time October hits.

Michigan State wide receiver Felton Davis III (18), defended by Penn State cornerback Christian Campbell (1), catches a 33-yard pass and falls into the end zone for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Michigan State wide receiver Felton Davis III (18), defended by Penn State cornerback Christian Campbell (1), catches a 33-yard pass and falls into the end zone for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Impact player

Felton Davis, WR: Davis was Lewerke’s favorite touchdown target in 2017. He caught nine of the 20 touchdowns that Lewerke threw. No other Michigan State player had more than four touchdown catches.

Davis only had 55 catches on the season, so that’s probably an unsustainable touchdown rate. Expecting an end zone regression is rational. But Davis could also surpass 70 catches and 1,000 yards even if he only scores five or six times in 2018. His average of just over 14 yards a catch was the most of any Spartan wide receiver in 2017.

Game to watch: Oct. 13 @ Penn State

The Spartans play the Nittany Lions a week before taking on Michigan at home. A win over Penn State sets up Michigan State for what could be a special season. A loss, well, the disappointment can be erased with a win over Michigan on Oct. 20.

Penn State is off a bye heading into the game while Michigan State will be on game four of a 10 games in 10 weeks stretch after a bye week in Week 3. If MSU pulls the upset, watch out.

Best-case scenario

Michigan State stuns Penn State and then splits games against Michigan and Ohio State. Hey, we’re not going to get too greedy. A late-season game at Nebraska isn’t a trap and the Spartans take care of the Big Ten East and meet (likely) Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.

Worst-case scenario

2016 isn’t in play here, but it’s possible Michigan State could end the season with four losses. Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State are three, and there’s also Northwestern in addition to that Nebraska game. 8-4 isn’t a season to sneeze at, but it would be considered a disappointment.

Prediction

Michigan State gets that split against Michigan and Ohio State but loses to Penn State. That would be 7-2 in the East for the second-straight season and, depending on how everything else shakes out, could give the Spartans a shot at the Big Ten Championship Game.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

To listen to the Yahoo Sports College Podcast, visit Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or Google Play. (Interview segment with Houston’s Ed Oliver begins at the 37:20 mark.)

On this week’s College Football Podcast, Dan Wetzel, Pat Forde and Pete Thamel discuss Urban Meyer’s situation and have an interview with Houston’s Ed Oliver.
On this week’s College Football Podcast, Dan Wetzel, Pat Forde and Pete Thamel discuss Urban Meyer’s situation and have an interview with Houston’s Ed Oliver.

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