It's that time of year again, when football fans size up their favorite teams during training camp and speculate about the season to come.
For my esteemed co-blogger and me, our alma mater, Michigan State, ranks much higher on the priority list than the Detroit Lions, a team that has been lousy for far too long. I have long enjoyed college football and basketball far more than the pro versions. And in recent seasons, it appears as if the National Football League is following in the footsteps of the National Basketball Association by becoming a collection of tatooed thugs and gangsta rappers.
So while I may make a few comments on the Detroit Leos, I'm going to focus on Michigan State.
The Spartans enjoyed spectacular success in the 2010 and 2011 seasons (12-2 in 2010, 11-3 in 2011), but suffered a bitterly disappointing 2012 campaign that included one gut-wrenching loss after another. En route to its final 7-6 record, MSU lost five games by a total of 13 points. I was there for some of them, including a 1-point heartbreaker to eventually undefeated Ohio State, an overtime loss to Iowa and a late-game collapse (aided by questionable officiating) against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Quarterback Andrew Maxwell, a product of my home town alma mater (Midland High School), had a tough assignment last year trying to fill the shoes of the departed Kirk Cousins, now with the Washington Redskins and perhaps the greatest QB in MSU history.
Maxwell started out shaky, but gained composure as the season progressed. However, he was unfairly maligned because the team only averaged 20 points of offense per game. Two factors contributed to this underwhelming stat: MSU's butter-fingered receivers dropped an appalling total of 65 passes last season. Additionally, the MSU offensive line suffered serious injuries to starters and was constantly in patchwork mode — a revolving door of substitute players not accustomed to playing with each other. Pass protection was often inadequate, and Maxwell is lead-footed as quarterbacks go. He missed many opportunities to take off and run, perhaps because he simply doesn't have confidence in his scrambling ability.
Thank God for superstar running back Le'veon Bell (now with the Pittsburgh Steelers), whose 1,793 total yards rushing and nearly 138-yards-per-game average were crucial to the 2012 Spartan offense. This year, a nondescript cast of competitors seeks to "replace" Bell in the backfield. It ought to raise a few alarm bells that the leading candidate, Riley Bullough, is a converted defensive linebacker, and a freshman to boot.
The receiving corps has loads of talent and potential, and must produce or MSU will be in trouble. Tight end Dion Sims, like Bell, gave up his senior season and declared for the NFL draft. He's now with the Miami Dolphins, and will be tough to replace. Young receivers like Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings Jr. are expected to make strides as sophomores, joining a promising group that includes reliable Bennie Fowler and Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett.
Maxwell, for his part, is being challenged by sophomore Connor Cook, who rallied the Spartans to a Buffalo Wild Wings victory over Texas Christian University last December. I believe Maxwell, now a senior, will have a great season, and the competition from Cook will drive him even harder.
This is not going to be a prolific MSU offense like the spread offenses of former coach John L. Smith. But MSU's defense is expected to be one of the best in the nation, and that ought to keep them in all of their games.
The main loss for the Spartans on "D" is end William Gholston, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Linebacker Max Bullough (brother of Riley) appears on some preseason All-America teams, as does cornerback Darqueze Dennard. The 2012 Spartans finished fourth in the nation and first in the Big Ten in total defense. Nationally, they finished eighth in rushing defense and ninth in passing defense. This year's defensive unit is expected to be just as solid.
The Spartans' punter, Mike Sadler, is one of the nation's best, but their placekicker, Dan Conroy, had several crucial misses that cost the Spartans' games in 2012. But to be fair, he also kicked the winning field goal in the one-point bowl victory against TCU.
Looking at the schedule, which includes Michigan at home and the absence of Ohio State, I am predicting a 9-3 regular season victory plus a bowl game win, for 10-3 overall. I don't foresee a Big Ten championship, but it would not shock me if I were wrong. Two weeks from Friday is the home opener. Looking forward to it.
DETROIT LIONS — In 2011, the Lions made the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Then they backslid badly, falling to 4-12. After starting off the first half of the season 4-4, Detroit lost 8 games in a row. This year's team will be more interesting, with the addition of high-profile free agent Reggie Bush (Miami) at running back, plus other solid free agent pickups such as cornerback Myron Lewis (Tampa Bay) and Israel Idonije (Chicago).
As always, the secondary remains Detroit's achilles' heel. And as is typical, it consists of a patchwork of underwhelming players chosen in recent drafts and castoffs from other teams. The Lions' defensive line and linebackers will be halfway decent, but the cornerbacks and safeties leave a lot to be desired.
The offense, led by superstar wide receiver Calvin Johnson and quarterback Matthew Stafford, will be prolific -- especially with Bush in the backfield. Second year player Riley Reiff, a 6' 6", 313 lb. behemoth, replaces the retired Jeff Backus at left tackle, and the offensive line also includes newcomers Leroy Harris and Rodney Austin to join mediocre Dominic Raiola and Rob Sims. Weak link Stephen Peterman is gone, thank God.
This looks to me like a 7-9 or 8-8 team. I just cannot get too excited about this defense, and fear another season of Keystone Kops play by the special teams, which were an unmitigated disaster in 2012. Hope the Lions prove me wrong and get back to the playoffs, but I'm not holding my breath.