Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is looking to finally break through in his sixth season. The Spartans won the Legends Division last year and were Big Ten co-champions in 2010, but have failed to play in a BCS bowl. Dantonio is hoping one of the top defenses in the nation will carry his team to a fourth New Year’s Day bowl or better.  

It all starts: Michigan State started preseason practice Saturday. The Spartans open the season on Aug. 31 against Boise State.

Three questions to answer in camp:

  • Can QB Andrew Maxwell replace Kirk Cousins? Maxwell, a junior who was a top prospect coming out of high school, will be counted on to replace one of the best signal-callers in school history. In mop-up duty last year, he combined to complete just 18 of 26 passes for 171 yards and a score over four games. This spring, he missed most of practice with a sprained knee. Maxwell will have a long leash, but redshirt freshman Connor Cook is waiting in the wings.
  • Can DE William Gholston anchor the defense? The 6-foot-7, 278-pounder is regarded as one of the top players at his position in the country after posting 70 tackles, including 16 for a loss, and five sacks last season. He will be expected to lead a unit that ranked sixth nationally in total defense (277.43) and 10th in scoring (18.36 ppg). Gholston now needs be a more vocal leader for a group retuning eight starters from last season.
  • Who will catch passes? Gone are receivers B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, Keith Nichol and Brian Linthicum. Sophomore Tony Lippett, who made four catches last year after switching from defense in the middle of the season, is the leading returning pass-catcher at the position. Junior Bennie Fowler and sophomore Keith Mumphery also are in the mix. And the impact of Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett remains to be seen. This inexperienced group will be expected to grow up fast.

Player who needs to step up: Junior TE Dion Sims will be counted on to be more productive after catching 12 passes for 99 yards and three touchdowns last season. With an inexperienced receiving corps and quarterback, it will be Sims who must be a security blanket for Maxwell. Sims and his 6-5, 280-pound frame also can be a weapon in the red zone for a team that may struggle to score points this season.

Potential breakout player: Sophomore DE Marcus Rush earned honorable mention All-Big Ten last year as he recorded 58 tackles and four sacks. With offenses double-teaming and keying on Gholston, it should create individual matchups for the 6-2, 250-pounder to exploit. 

For more up-to-the-minute news and analysis from Big Ten bloggers Dave Carey and Mike Singer, follow @CBSSportsBigTen.