When Michigan State and Ohio State played in 2011, the game was a grinder. It was a 10-7 win by Michigan State and the Buckeyes didn't score until the final moments of the game.
The Spartans scored their touchdown in the first quarter on a 33-yard touchdown from quarterback Kirk Cousins to wide receiver B.J. Cunningham. From there, it was a show of impressive defense and/or inept offense.
Now both Cousins and Cunningham are both off to the NFL and only four starters on offense return. Its Michigan State's defense, though, that should be just as strong. Eight starters are back on a Spartans defense loaded with NFL-caliber talent.
When William Gholston isn't punching Michigan's Taylor Lewan, he's one of the conference's best defensive linemen. The 6-foot-7, 278-pound end was a second-team all-conference pick a year ago and should minimize the loss of tackle Jerel Worthy. If there's a defensive award, the junior is most likely on the preseason watch list. At this time next year, look for him to be on an NFL roster.
Worthy's likely replacement is 330-pound senior Anthony Rashad White. He started four games a season ago and had 25 tackles.
"We've definitely got a long way to go," Gholston told the Associated Press. "Until I'm perfect, I've got a lot of room to grow. . . . But we're all faster. We know where to be. We know what to expect. And we know how to counteract it."
The Spartans have perhaps the best trio of linebackers in the Big Ten this season, returning Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Chris Norman.
The team's starting cornerbacks may be the league's best as well in senior Johnny Adams and junior Darqueze Dennard. Adams, who plays the boundary, strongly considered the NFL after last season and ESPN's Mel Kiper has him in his top 25 overall prospects. Dennard broke out in the Outback Bowl against Georgia with two interceptions. If Michigan State has a weakness on defense, it may be at safety. The team has to replace Trenton Robinson and sophomore Kurtis Drummond will get the first opportunity to do so.
The replacements on offense are much more severe. Michigan State only returns four starters, with junior Andrew Maxwell replacing Cousins at quarterback.
Michigan State's offensive line is has a fair amount of experience, and they'll be called on to run block for Le'Veon Bell. Now that he won't have to share carries, look for Bell to work himself into Heisman Trophy contention (unless, of course, Big Jonathan Hankins has something to do about it). Bell led the Spartans last season with 948 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has the size to overpower the strongest of defenders. Whether or not he can carry a full load is unknown.
He may have to considering the relative lack of experience at wide receiver. Head coach Mark Dantonio has pointed to that unit as one that has talent, but needs improvement. Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett could factor greatly into the success of Michigan State's offense this season.