USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.

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Eight months after concluding the program's finest season in more than four decades, Michigan State looks to defend its Big Ten Conference championship and Rose Bowl victory while battling for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The Spartans have the pieces to mount another run toward a top-five finish. Quarterback Connor Cook returns for his second full season as the starter, perhaps propelled to new heights by his MVP turn in January's victory against Stanford. Cook is one of 15 returning starters and 46 returning lettermen from a team that claimed a school-record 13 wins, including all nine Big Ten victories by 10 or more points.

Michigan State has the personnel; Michigan State also has the mentality. Last season stood as the Spartans' breakthrough under Mark Dantonio and this coaching staff, the culmination of six years of steady progress up the Big Ten ladder – a road pocked with successes and failures, with the good times and bad contributing to the Spartans' rise into the nation's elite.

It's a team and program united in a rock-solid sense of purpose. Last year came as a surprise, perhaps, but not to those inside the Spartans' locker room: Michigan State saw this coming. One year later, Dantonio and the Spartans don't plan on leaving.

LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:

MSU is a legitimate Rose Bowl threat – but not a national title contender, of course. This team won't go undefeated during the regular season, nor will it survive that deciding three-game stretch during the season's second half unscathed. But the Spartans will put last season in the rearview mirror and push for nine wins during the regular season.

2013 RECAP:

In a nutshell: If not for an illogical number of pass interference calls in a loss against Notre Dame – I'm still in amazement, by the way – Michigan State would have met Florida State to decide the national championship. Instead, that single regular-season loss served as the impetus toward one of the great years by a Big Ten team in league history, a defense-driven dominance of opponents good and bad on the road to a school record for wins in a single season. The Spartans throttled rival Michigan, holding the Wolverines to minus-48 yards rushing. MSU held Ohio State at arm's length, frustrating and stymieing the vaunted Buckeyes to secure a Rose Bowl berth. The win against the Buckeyes was validation; the win against Stanford, driven home by a late fourth-down stop, raised the question of whether MSU would be a deserved No. 1 should Auburn have topped Florida State in Pasadena less than a week later.

High point: Michigan and Ohio State.

Low point: Notre Dame.

Tidbit: Michigan State won all nine of its Big Ten games by 10 or more points, counting the win against Ohio State in the conference title game. The last undefeated Big Ten team to win all of its league games by double-digits was Michigan in 1943.

ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:

Big Ten coordinators

1. Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State
2. Tom Herman, Ohio State
3. Mike Hankwitz, Northwestern
4. Greg Mattison, Michigan
5. Tim Beck, Nebraska

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Offense: Connor Cook seems supremely prepared to take the next step. Let's remember that he's starting from a position of strength: Cook's sophomore season – his first as the Spartans' full-time starter – featured one of the finest passing performances in program history, with Cook standing among the Spartans' single-season top six in passing yards (2,755), touchdowns (22), completions (223), attempts (380) and total offense (2,831 yards). He's spent the offseason tweaking and streamlining not just his physical approach but also the mental side, growing far more comfortable within the framework of the Spartans' ball-control offense while developing a heightened and deeper rapport with his cast of returning receivers. If you look beyond the perennially elite defense, the solid coaching and the general strength in returning personnel, there's one reason why Michigan State seems poised to duplicate last year's success: Cook is one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten. Though not yet ready to be viewed as more than a Heisman Trophy dark horse, Cook has national-award potential during the next two seasons.

Unlike last fall, the Spartans head into September with a concrete rotation at running back. Leading the charge is senior Jeremy Langford (1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns), who dabbled in the backfield and at wide receiver during his first two seasons on campus before finding a home in the running game as a junior – and more often than not finding a home in the end zone, leading the Big Ten with 18 rushing scores. Langford will lead, doing so at an all-conference level, but MSU's offensive philosophy – run until they drop – ensures a substantial workload for senior Nick Hill (344 yards), sophomore Delton Williams (238 yards), redshirt freshman Gerald Holmes and perhaps incoming freshman Madre London, though it may be hard for the rookie to work his way into the rotation.

Cook has developed a very nice rapport with each of the Spartans' top four receivers. One in particular, senior Tony Lippett (44 receptions for 613 yards), could be on the verge of a banner final season: Lippett was a take-charge option during Big Ten play and the Rose Bowl win, pulling down the game-winning score in the latter. Beyond Lippett, the Spartans return junior Macgarrett Kings (42 for 509), senior Keith Mumphrey (18 for 299) and junior Aaron Burbridge (22 for 194), and will land all-conference production from sophomore tight end Josiah Price (17 for 210). MSU will also find a role for converted running back R.J. Shelton, who could be dynamic with the ball in space, and will continue to be patient with former Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who is coming off a very solid set of spring drills. In total, this is a receiver corps that quietly – sometimes not so quietly – goes about its business, giving Cook the tools and weapons he needs to continue his development under center.

Defense: Michigan State is one of two programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision to rank among the top nationally in total, scoring and rushing defense in each of the past three seasons, joining Alabama. That's not going to change in 2014, though the Spartans do have enough personnel concerns to keep coordinator Pat Narduzzi busy until the final days of fall camp. The majority of changes come along the front seven, where MSU must replace the interior of its defensive line and replace a pair of starters at linebacker. That's an issue, but it's tempered by the three returning starters: ends Shilique Calhoun (37 tackles, 7.5 sacks) and Marcus Rush (30 tackles, 5.0 sacks) and linebacker Taiwan Jones (67 tackles, 7.0 for loss). Calhoun's the known commodity on the national stage, but Rush is a steady all-conference contender and Jones the Spartans' next superb defender on the second level.

With Calhoun – a projected All-American for good reason – and Rush entrenched on the outside, MSU can spend August attacking the two open spots at tackle. While juniors Damon Knox and Joel Heath entered fall camp as the projected starters, MSU will give a long look to Lawrence Thomas, a 310-pound junior who could fit inside and out, and audition true freshmen Craig Evans, Enoch Smith and Malik McDowell, the latter the gem of February's recruiting class. When including junior Brendon Clemons and senior James Kittredge, the Spartans won't lack for options on the inside – meaning Narduzzi and the staff could opt for a shuffling cast, with this depth coming in handy against more quickly paced opponents such as Oregon, Nebraska and Ohio State. Also, don't sleep on how Calhoun's attention-grabbing production will make things easier on the Spartans' interior.

Again, Jones is ready to breakout. He'll move from the weak side to the middle in 2014, replacing Max Bullough, and serve as the vocal leader of the Spartans' entire defense. Jones could shift back to the weak side, however, if MSU feels its best alignment has the senior on the outside and junior Darien Harris in the middle; for now, however, it seems as if Jones is set to tackle the inside. The Spartans will replace Denicos Allen on the strong side with junior Ed Davis, one of last year's top reserves. Davis could be pushed by sophomore Riley Bullough, who shifts back to linebacker after spending last fall in the offensive backfield. While there's a loss of star power, Jones' all-conference production and Michigan State's recent history at the position suggests this unit remains among the top four in the Big Ten.

As at linebacker, the secondary loses a good one: Darqueze Dennard was a stopper for MSU, essentially negating one side of the field and opening up Narduzzi's exotic bag of tricks on third down. With Dennard gone, MSU needs junior Trae Waynes to step forward as the program's next elite performer on the outside; Waynes has the physical gifts to stand as the Big Ten's best cornerback, but he'll need to embrace the mentality of being the Spartans' go-to defensive back. Perhaps a greater concern – since Waynes will be terrific, I think – is MSU's options on the other side, since opposing quarterbacks are going to focus heavily on sophomore Darian Hicks, the new projected starter. In total, however, when considering Waynes' production and the rock-solid safety duo of senior Kurtis Drummond (91 tackles) and junior R.J. Williamson (42 tackles) – with Drummond a clear-cut all-league pick – the Spartans' secondary must still be viewed as a major asset.

Special teams: It's almost unfair, but nonetheless: Michigan State is dynamite in the kicking game. Sophomore Michael Geiger might not match last season's accurate numbers – he made 15-of-16 field goals – but he still stands as one of the most promising young kickers in college football. At punter, there's no one better than senior Mike Sadler at controlling field position; he led the FBS last fall with 24 punts pinned inside the opposition's 10-yard line. The return game is only slightly above average, but Kings has proven to be a dangerous weapon on punts.

POSITION(S) TO WATCH:

Offensive line: The Spartans lose three starters from last year's outstanding front – left guard Blake Treadwell, right guard Dan France and right tackle Fou Fonoti – but return five seasoned hands from the two-deep. Each of the returning starters, sophomore left tackle Jack Conklin and junior center Jack Allen, should earn All-Big Ten honors, with Conklin one of the league's most promising linemen. The Spartans will bookend the line with Conklin and junior Donovan Clark, a four-game starter on the blind side in 2013 who will shift to the strong side this fall as Fonoti's replacement – and do very well, I think. Michigan State can even call on an 18-game starter at left guard: Travis Jackson, a fifth-year senior, brings an extensive amount of experience to the table. Perhaps the biggest question mark stands at right guard, where MSU is hopeful senior Connor Kruse can handle the workload along the interior. Kruse is also valuable in reserve, since he can essentially play all five positions up front, so he's an asset even if one of senior James Bodanis and sophomore Zach Higgins steps forward at guard with a strong fall camp.

GAME(S) TO WATCH:

Ohio State: That Ohio State – and not Michigan – stands as the defining game of Michigan State's season speaks to the program's new standard for success. The November matchup will be for the East Division, one would think, and have a profound impact on the makeup of the College Football Playoff – perhaps deciding whether or not the Big Ten has a participant in the four-team field, in fact. In total, this is not an easy schedule: MSU goes to Oregon in September, takes on the normal divisional slate and hosts Nebraska to open October.

SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:

In a nutshell: This combination of a productive offense, a stingy and opportunistic defense, a rock-solid kicking game, superb coaching and confidence again makes Michigan State one of the top six or seven teams nationally, the top team in the Big Ten and a contender for one of the four spots in the inaugural College Football Playoff. There simply aren't any weaknesses: MSU is bridging the gap to a new cast on defense, true, but the incumbent personnel and recent standard of success makes this side of the ball an unquestioned strength. In all, MSU is one of the very few teams that enter the 2014 season with sincere and realistic hopes of claiming the national championship.

And even if the defense takes a slight step back – it won't fall far, if at all – the offense seems poised to pick up the slack. Cook is prepared to play at an even higher level as a second-year starter. Lankford doesn't get the same acclaim as conference peers Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon, but his productive ways make him one of the league's three best backs. The receiver corps is as experienced as any in the conference. The offensive line might struggle to a slight degree in transitioning to three new starters, but the Spartans' front remains steady, secure and supremely experienced. In total, this may end up being the most consistent offense of Dantonio's tenure.

The year comes down to three games: Oregon, Ohio State and Michigan. The latter's important in the rivalry sense, of course, but it doubles as perhaps a season-defining game heading into the final month. The matchup with OSU will decide the division, as noted, and likely decide the Big Ten, given how both the Spartans and Buckeyes stand a full step ahead of the top teams from the West Division. Finally, a road trip to Oregon will help decide the Spartans' title hopes; the playoff format will allow for a regular-season loss, but a defeat in Eugene will drop MSU behind the pack before the end of September. When it comes to 2014, think of it this way: Michigan State may very run the table. At best, the Spartans are one of four programs left standing in January; at worst, this is a 10-win team.

Dream season: Michigan State tops Oregon in September and again breezes through the Big Ten to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Nightmare season: The Spartans slide to 8-4, finishing behind Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten East Division.

UP NEXT:

Who's No. 5? One of the four original buildings built on this university's campus was named after a philosopher born in the school's home state.

RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM 64-1

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