Many observers were surprised to see Michigan State picked by the media to finish third in the conference. What's your take? Is finishing third a likely outcome? Any concerns it places too much pressure on a team with a lot of question marks on offense?
KJ: I suspect we barely beat out Iowa/Illinois/Wisconsin in the voting. The fact they don’t release the voting details—and only go three teams deep—makes the result seem more dramatic than it really probably is. And the fact we don’t have to play Ohio State was likely the tie-breaker for a lot of voters. Finishing third in the league is certainly a reasonable goal—but I don’t think we’re a rock solid pick to finish there.
Pete: Third is definitely doable, but I would not say it is likely. Remember, if Ricky Stanzi doesn't throw a couple of interceptions in the red zone and Bret Bielema retains even a modicum of sanity during the 4th quarter, we're talking about a 7-5 regular season MSU. That said, this is the most beneficial schedule MSU's been handed in at least a decade; their toughest road game is either Illinois or Wisconsin. Either Kirk Cousins or Keith Nichol will be, at the very least, competent at quarterback, and if even one running back can emerge from the platoon, MSU has a shot at third. I'd say they finish tied for fourth.
LVS: Sure, if we get the kind of breaks we did last year, since I think ultimately we'll be a better team this year than we were last year. But when I look at our schedule, I can't help but see at least three losses: Penn State (because they're clearly better than we are), Iowa (not much of a talent gap, but it'll be difficult beating them two seasons in a row, even at home -- I have a bad feeling about this game), and either at Illinois or Wisconsin. Those two road games will be key: if we can win at least one of them, we'll be in good shape; win both, and we're a conference title contender. Out of the two, I'm more confident about Wisconsin; I think at that point in the season, offensive line play will be our biggest liability, and Wisconsin's brand-new defensive line isn't going to be able to exploit that weakness. Illinois -- who knows? Either way, 3 losses most likely isn't going to get us fourth place, and 4 losses certainly won't. A fourth-place finish isn't horrible, and that's what I'll pick. We'll be beastly in 2010.
Speaking of question marks on offense, one line of thinking is that MSU's quarterback situation, while unsettled, will ultimately be a case of addition by subtraction. Is that theory a buy or a sell?
KJ: I thought Brian Hoyer got a bit of a bad rap last season. It's hard to be successful when you're constantly being asked to throw on third and long and rarely being given chances on first and ten. Having said that, I think the addition-by-subtraction theory holds in the long run--by midseason, optimistically. It's just a matter of how long it takes to identify the starter and get that guy comfortable as the leader of the offense. With three seasons of eligibility remaining for both Cousins and Nichol, I think Mark Dantonio will take his time in picking the starter, potentially sacrificing a game or two this season for stability over the next two seasons (when contention for a Big Ten title is more likely).
Pete: That theory's a hold for this year. While Hoyer didn't exactly make a lot of plays that wound up winning a game, he never threw an interception or had a fumble that caused an MSU loss; the same can't be said for Drew Stanton. I've got a feeling either Nichol or Cousins will lose a game because of a mistake either makes - they're both rookie quarterbacks, it's what rookie quarterbacks do - but I think by next year, either will be better than Hoyer.
LVS: BUY BUY BUY, if only because we'll have better receiver play this year. Ho yer didn't do himself any favors most of the time, but he wasn't helped by the obscene amount of drops from Mark Dell, B.J. Cunningham, et al. last year. Perhaps this is a leap of faith, but I think there will be less of that this season: both of those guys are a year older, and there's a whole lot more depth at the position this season, so they'll each be feeling more pressure to perform. In any event, I was very impressed with what we saw from Cousins last season: he's got a great arm, and when he was in the game, the coaching staff really didn't hold back at all -- the fact that he was throwing the ball a whole lot shows their faith in him. Nonetheless, I've said many times that I think Nichol will ultimately be the better quarterback. Of course it's a bit of a crapshoot, since he barely has any NCAA game experience, and I doubt that any of us have watched it (I certainly haven't); but, everything I've seen in highlights and read in news accounts makes me believe that he's a tremendous athlete and can add versatility and excitement to the offense in spades. Given that we're breaking in two new quarterbacks, I'm not thrilled that the @Notre Dame/@Wisconsin/Michigan stretch comes so early in the season. But come mid-to-late October and November, I think we'll be in fantastic shape at QB . . . as long as the offensive line gives them time to throw the ball.
HT to the MGoReaders who helped spark these questions.