Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is returning eight starters on what was already the strongest defense in the Big Ten. Last season, the Spartans ranked among the top 10 in points allowed (18.4), rushing yards allowed (100.5), and total yards per game (277.4). Should the Spartans book a trip to Pasadena on Jan. 1, the defense, littered with NFL prospects, will be the primary reason.    

The scariest aspect to the Spartan defense is that no tier supersedes the other. The defensive line, which had a Big Ten-high 45 sacks last year, is anchored by first-round prospect William Gholston. Last season as a sophomore, Gholston had 67 tackles in 12 games, including a combined 29 tackles versus Nebraska and Minnesota.

“We try to set Will up in the best position possible to make the biggest plays,” linebacker Max Bullough said. “When you got an asset like Will Gholston you gotta use him. He’s a freak of nature.”

DE Marcus Rush was a big beneficiary of Gholston, as the 6-7 “freak” often commanded double-teams last season. This year, Rush is a preseason All-Big Ten selection of his own right by Phil Steele and a second-team pick from Lindy’s Sports Magazine. Rush ranked first among Big Ten freshmen last season with four sacks and 12 tackles for loss.

Outside of Wisconsin’s linebacking crew, the Spartans may have the best linebackers in the conference with upperclassmen Denicos Allen, Max Bullough, and Chris Norman. Allen led the team in sacks (11) and tackles for loss (18.5) while Bullough patrolled the middle of the field with a team-high 89 tackles.

Bullough, who’s on the Bednarik, Butkus and Lombardi watch lists, is the unquestioned leader of the corp. 

“In terms of leadership and knowing where to be on the field and doing his job, he is very, very good,” linebackers coach Mike Tressel said at Spartan media days. “Doing your job and doing your job excellent are two different things. That is the step he is taking.”

If quarterback pressure and the fear of getting crushed across the middle aren’t enough to worry about, the Spartans also maintain the best secondary in the conference. CB Johnny Adams, another first-round prospect, had 51 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions, and a touchdown he returned against the Hoosiers last year.

Adams’ coverage ability affords the linebackers the chance to inch closer to the line of scrimmage instead of sitting back in pass protection.   

“Having the confidence in him, not only do what he needs to do, but he’s able to get other guys lined up. We got a lot of guys that know what they’re doing but it gets chaotic out there,” Bullough said. 

Adams’ counterpart, CB Darqueze Dennard, finished last season with three interceptions in the final six games, including a touchdown in the triple-overtime win over Georgia in the Outback bowl. 

The Spartans’ stifling defense propelled the team to the inaugural Big Ten championship game last season, a 3-point loss to Wisconsin, but even after consecutive 11-win seasons, Bullough still doesn’t feel like the Spartans have garnered enough respect.  

“On one hand we feel like we’re flying under the radar but on the other hand, we don’t necessarily care. It’s about what we’re doing behind closed doors,” Bullough said. “We just want to remember the scab we got from when we used to not win the close ones.”

For more Big Ten coverage, follow Mike Singer and Dave Carey @CBSSportsBigTen.