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August 31, 2012
Michigan State and Boise State turned in big seasons in 2011, combining for 23 victories and winning their bowl games.
Replicating those performances could prove very difficult this year with each team adjusting to numerous key departures - most notably both star quarterbacks.
The No. 13 Spartans begin the post-Kirk Cousins era as they host 24th-ranked Boise State, which will also have an unfamiliar look under center with Kellen Moore gone, in the programs' first-ever meeting Friday night.
Michigan State (11-3) capped its second straight 11-win season by earning its first bowl victory since 2001 in thrilling fashion, beating Georgia in triple overtime in the Outback Bowl. That game, however, was also the final one for the steady signal-caller who guided the Spartans for the last three years and left as the winningest quarterback in school history.
Cousins threw for 45 touchdowns and 20 interceptions the past two seasons while posting a 146.1 rating in his career. Replacing him will be senior Andrew Maxwell, who's played in nine games.
While Maxwell performed well in limited duty in four games last year, going 18 for 26 for 171 yards and one TD, each appearance came in relief of Cousins during blowouts. Only one was against a Big Ten opponent.
"Our big goal is to get to the Rose Bowl, the BCS games and the national championship," Maxwell said. "We haven't accomplished that yet. But for me, the only pressure is to do my job the best that I can. If I can do that, we can really be a special team."
Making matters more difficult for Maxwell is the loss of top receiver B.J. Cunningham, who had 1,306 yards and 12 touchdowns, along with receivers Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol.
Michigan State does get back leading rusher Le'Veon Bell, who ran for 987 yards and 13 scores, and the Spartans' defense should continue to be solid. William Gholston had five sacks and 70 tackles in 2011, Denicos Allen had 11 sacks and Max Bullough topped the team with 89 tackles along with 3 1/2 sacks.
"Ultimately, we don't want to lose a game," Gholston said. "It's really up to us how far we go, but I think people have started to respect us a little more. I really appreciate that."
The Spartans will have to knock off a marquee opponent to get past the first week undefeated, but the team that shook up the BCS with its success over the past several seasons has a very different look. The biggest difference for Boise State is the absence of Moore, who passed for nearly 15,000 yards with 142 touchdowns and only 28 interceptions in his stellar career.
The Broncos (12-1) will also be missing star running back Doug Martin and defensive lineman Shea McClellin. Both of them and Moore are now in the NFL after helping Boise State to a 50-3 record in their four seasons, and numerous other key contributors are gone.
Boise State's amazing recent success allowed it to earn a move to the Big East starting next season, but coach Chris Petersen is left with an inexperienced roster in the Broncos' final year in the Mountain West.
"In the past, we've gone through fall camp, and guys you know might not look great one day, but you've seen them play for extended periods in the past and you don't really worry about much with them," Petersen said. "Now there are so many new guys you worry about how they are practicing every single day. And really, you don't know what anything is going to look like until you go for real."
Junior Joe Southwick, Moore's backup the past two seasons, will make his first career start Friday after winning a four-way battle during the preseason. He's gone 40 of 54 for 400 yards, two TDs and an INT in 16 career games.
Southwick does have the benefit of a solid returning receiving corps. Matt Miller tied for the team lead with 62 catches last year and totaled 679 yards and nine touchdowns, while Kirby Moore and Mitch Burroughs give Southwick other experienced targets.
Boise State's defense, hit hard by key departures, could be quickly exposed by Michigan State. The Broncos' four starting linemen from last season have departed, along with their top three linebackers.
"I think we've got a pretty hard schedule, and it's going to be a tough test for this team all season long," Petersen said. "Michigan State, even at (No. 13), I think is totally underrated. And we've got some tough places to play away from home."
Boise State has won all six season openers under Petersen.