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Ryan Cooper and Jack Freifelder | | August 22, 2016

Will Michigan State make the Playoff?

  Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio hopes to lead his Spartans back to the CFB Playoff this season.

Note: Over the next two weeks leading into the first full slate of college football games, we will take a look at 14 of the top teams heading into 2016 and analyze their chances at making the 2016 College Football Playoff. We continue this series with Michigan State, a team that finished 12-2 last year and is ranked 12th in the 2016 AP preseason top 25 poll.

MSU will make the 2016 CFP because... MSU won't make the 2016 CFP because...
  • RB LJ Scott can be a workhorse
  • the departure of QB Connor Cook will be too much
  • its defense is loaded all around
  • its skill position players are not experienced
  • its strength of schedule is top-notch
  • the defense can't live up to 2015 numbers

Ryan CooperAll right Jack, let's keep it going with team No. 5 on our college football countdown: Michigan State.

The Spartans opened up at No. 12 in the AP poll after an impressive 12-1 start to last season. Sure, it ended with an embarrassing 38-0 loss against Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals, but Michigan State had to be thrilled with its performance in a competitive Big Ten that included Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan, all three of which the Spartans beat away from East Lansing. 

RELATED: Preseason AP poll: Taking a top-to-bottom look at top 25 rankings

There are some roster changes like every football team goes through, but this is still a really strong team, and I think it can repeat its 2015 success and go back to the Playoff.

Jack Freifelder: All fair points, and if not for a minor hiccup at unranked Nebraska this team could have been riding even higher into its matchup with Alabama. Attitude is everything, and a 13-0 squad would have been oozing confidence heading into the Playoff.

Will these teams make the CFP?
Iowa Mississippi
Houston Tennessee
Mich. St. LSU
Ohio State
Florida St. Oklahoma
Clemson Alabama
But we are only eight months removed from the shellacking the Spartans took at the hands of the Crimson Tide and the wound still feels a bit tender.

Take the hangover factor and add in some of the departures on the offensive side of the ball, and all of a sudden there are some real questions marks for head coach Mark Dantonio and Co. For example, how does this squad deal with the departure of Connor Cook at QB?

RC: It cannot be argued that Cook carved out a nice legacy during his time in East Lansing, playing a key role in elevating Michigan State to the upper tier of programs.

His mark of seven interceptions in 13 games last year was phenomenal, and his roughly 240 yards per game ranked 39th in the nation. But his 56 percent completion rate was mediocre at best. With Tyler O'Connor and Damion Terry competing for the starting job, I think the production can be replaced.

O'Connor profiles similarly to Cook as a pro-style, strong-armed quarterback while Terry is a dual-threat option who could open up the offense a lot more with his legs. And if you recall, it wasn't Cook who went in Columbus and gave Ohio State its only loss last year; it was O'Connor.

  MSU QBs Tyler O'Connor (7) and Damion Terry (6) will be tasked with leading the offense in 2016.
JF: That's a good point. Winning on the road in the Big Ten is a valued commodity, but based off skill set alone it is one trait that could be replicated with O'Connor and/or Terry under center. I will concede to you there.

And the Spartans are in luck that they return the team's top three running backs — a trio that accounted for 22 TDs on the ground. But my real worry is on the outside at the skill positions.

Michigan State's top two receiving threats (Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings Jr: 125 receptions, 1700+ yards, 12 TDs, collectively) are gone and that leaves a lot to be desired in terms of would be pass-catchers.

Names like sophomore Felton Davis III and redshirt freshman Darrell Stewart Jr. have given the coaching ranks something to keep an eye on, but QB-wideout chemistry is not something you want to be cultivating midseason. If the offense is going to have some punch this year, they'd better develop a rapport quickly in the season opener against Furman because two weeks later they'll be in South Bend, Ind., for a battle with Notre Dame.

MORE: Brian Lewerke happy for shot at MSU QB job

RC: Davis and Stewart do look like solid targets, and watch out for R.J. Shelton, who played second-fiddle to Burbridge last year but is a popular pick to emerge as one of the best receivers in the Big Ten for his final season.

  Spartans running back LJ Scott (3) could be a breakout player to watch in 2016.
And don't forget about running back LJ Scott, who was really impressive as a true freshman last year and should only get better with a year of experience under his belt. I think he could already be considered a top three running back in the conference, and he could prove to make a Le'Veon Bell type impact.

JF: Running game was definitely a weapon and controlling the line of scrimmage seems to be a main focus for Michigan State — on both sides of the ball. With no real reason to expect that to change, the topic of focus has to be the vaunted Spartans defense. Where are we looking as we head into 2016-'17?

RC: I think that's the side of the ball that you really get excited about when you form high expectations for the Spartans.

Sure, Shalique Calhoun and his 10.5 sacks are gone, but they still have potential All-Big Ten talent in each of the three defensive position groups: Malik McDowell on the line; Riley Bullough in the middle; and Montae Nicholson and Demetrious Cox in the backfield. This team ranked 25th and 26th in points and yards allowed per game last year, respectively, and there's no reason to expect any deviation from the style Dantonio has put together.

JF: Fair enough, the stats are good. The numbers I like: 37 sacks, 15 picks, 13 fumble recoveries, good for 15th, 25th and 8th, respectively in the country. Mix in two defensive touchdowns and that's a helluva year. No arguments there.

But one number I don't like is two, as in two redshirt freshmen slated to start in this team's defensive unit: David Bowell and Raequan Williams.

Both Williams and Bowell have had the appropriate amount of time to marinate with the team's defensive scheme, but this is a high-functioning unit that needs to be in top gear early. I don't want to pin the lot of the team on two players, but there can be no weak links in the team's front seven if we are going to see any semblance of last year's dominance.

RC: Inexperience is never a plus, but two weak links shouldn't make the whole 11-man system crash (not that I think Williams nor Bowell will be particularly weak).

The last note I want to briefly touch on is MSU's schedule.

Unlike a team such as Houston that can wave goodbye to the Playoff if it loses to Oklahoma, I think the Spartans can afford to eat a loss, as they did last year. It would be preferable if that loss didn't come against Michigan or Ohio State for tie-breaking purposes, but I don't see that second game at Notre Dame as a must-win by any means, and I think that can help the team relax.

JF: That's true too, scheduling is definitely in MSU's favor.

The Power 5 naysayers may chime in here, but if we see the Spartans repeat their performance in close games (6-1 in games decided by 7 points or less) and dominate the Big Ten slog, I could see them making a case for themselves — even as a one-loss participant in the Playoff.

But this is the Big Ten.

Beating the likes of Michigan and Ohio State is never a given (lord knows the Spartans' victory over Michigan last year was a godsend), and the East division features a three-headed monster in the form of MSU, OSU and Michigan.

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Odds are they could all get in each other's way this year at the top of the Big Ten, so cue all the best from Larry, Curly and Moe, because it may be a Three Stooges' type logjam en route to the CFB Playoff in 2017.

The best part of this all is we only have to wait a few more weeks to start getting some answers here.

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