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Know your 2017 Northwestern football opponent, Week 9: Michigan State

The Spartans should improve after a dismal 2016, but may not get back to a championship level.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect.

Next up is Michigan State, Northwestern's Week 9 opponent. The matchup with the Spartans comes in between two key divisional games — vs. Iowa and at Nebraska — and represents a winnable home game during the heart of NU's schedule.

The Basics

Returning starters: 5 (2 offense, 3 defense)

Returning experience: 44 percent

2016 record: 3-9 (1-8 B1G)

Coach: Mark Dantonio (11th season, 90-42, 53-28 B1G)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2016 S&P+ Overall: 57th

2016 S&P+ Offense: 66th

2016 S&P+ Defense: 41st

2017 S&P+ Projection: 44th

2016 Capsule

Last season was a disaster for MSU.

With quarterback Connor Cook gone, the Spartans turned to Tyler O'Connor, who struggled with injury and inconsistency throughout the season. Brian Lewerke and Damion Terry also started games for an offense that ranked 103rd nationally in points per game.

Lacking a reliable signal caller and really any competence in the defensive secondary, Dantonio's team narrowly skated by Furman and Notre Dame to begin the season. Then things went terribly wrong.

The Spartans proceeded to lose their next seven games, including disappointment defeats at Indiana, Maryland and Illinois. Their lone Big Ten win was a blowout, albeit against lowly Rutgers. MSU lost the games it was supposed to, falling to Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State, though the OSU loss came in thrilling fashion. And how could we forget the 54-40 shootout loss to Northwestern, which was the best offensive performance for the Spartans all year.

After winning double-digit games in 2013-2015, Dantonio suddenly finds himself on a semi-hot seat, with an even younger team in 2017 than he had in 2016. The team has also had serious offseason issues. In June, Dantonio dismissed three players on the team who were charged with sexual assault. Michigan State couldn’t have been more solid after winning the 2015 Big Ten Championship, but suddenly they are in disarray.

Offensive Overview

O'Connor, who took most of the snaps at QB, is gone, leaving Lewerke (So.) and Terry (Sr.) as potential options to start.

Lewerke got more reps than Terry did last season, and adds a dimension as a runner. He didn't make a ton of mistakes in 2016, and seems like the most likely candidate to start at the beginning of the season, though the situation seems fluid, and Terry should play some.

The strength of the Spartan offense lies in the running game, where backs LJ Scott and Gerald Holmes are both back. The duo combined for over 1,400 yards rushing last season, though they won't contribute much as receivers. Scott and Holmes, 230 and 222 pounds, respectively, are both bruisers, and will try to wear down defenses with north and south running styles.

On the offensive line, five players with starting experience return, but that number is a bit misleading. Only one returning lineman — senior Brian Allen — started all 12 games last season, and the four most experienced linemen behind Allen are gone. Because there will be a lot new faces starting up front, it's unclear how the unit will fare, but it's tough to see the line being a slam-dunk next season.

At receiver, the top four pass-catchers from 2016 are gone. Would-be sophomore Donnie Corley was the team's second-leading receiver last year, but was dismissed this offseason after being charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct in relation to a January incident.

Of returning players, Felton Davis III had the most targets last season, and he only had 29 of them (and just 12 receptions). New faces will be thrust into prominent roles for the receiving corps this season.

Defensive Overview

Michigan State regressed big-time from 2015 to 2016, and will lose five of its top 10 defensive linemen this season, including star Malik McDowell. Defensive tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk are the top returners on the line, and Demetrius Cooper could be a force on the edge, though his status on the team is unclear after a six-month suspension from the program that came as a result of a 2016 assault and battery charge.

There are several former four-star recruits on the interior D-line, but producing a potent pass-rush is going to be difficult without McDowell.

Chris Frey and Andrew Dowell are back for the linebacking corps, which could very well be the strength of the defense this season. Can the players up front occupy blockers and keep opposing offensive lines from getting to the second level? If Michigan State can’t answer that, the defense will be as miserable as last season.

The MSU pass defense was atrocious last season, and four of the top five players in the secondary are now gone (which could be a good thing for the Spartans, depending on how you look at it). Josh Butler and Justin Layne are candidates to start at corner, and are both former four-stars.

Players to Know

C Brian Allen

Allen is a leader on the team, and has started 25 games for the Spartans in his career. He's played at all three interior line spots, and is a two-time second team All-Big Ten player. The senior is on watch lists for the Remington and Outland trophies.

RB LJ Scott

The Hubbard, Ohio native is one of the better returning backs in the country, and is on preseason watch lists for the Maxwell and Doak Walker awards. He has six 100-yard games in his career, and is a powerful runner when he gets going downhill.

LB Chris Frey

Frey led the Spartans with 96 tackles a year ago, and is one of a few experienced players on the MSU defense. He has shown the ability to disrupt offenses in the backfield, which is impressive given his 6-foot-2, 238 pound frame.