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Hoegher's 2012 Previews: Michigan State Spartans

I hate Michigan State. Now, I will readily admit that this is partially due to the fact that my favorite team has suffered several losses to the Spartans over the years. I don't hate Minnesota precisely because I can't remember when they last beat Wisconsin. But this is only part of the reason. It's also because of their fans and their constant whining about being disrespected and whatnot. Y'all display a logic reminiscent of Alabama fans in its willingness to ignore certain facts, with the exception that Alabama at least has a trophy for it. Must be a Nick Saban thing, maybe he has a disease.

Still, Michigan State isn't a bad team (though I hope that trait comes back soon enough), so for now I will have to tolerate the Spartan uprising. Rest assured, when mediocrity returns, I will be enjoying every second of it.

Clever Title Regarding The Spartans (Michigan State Performance 2005-2011)

Figure 1: Michigan State Yearly FBS Rank (2005-2011)

Figure 2: Michigan State Yearly Adj Off, Def Rank (2005-2011)

Figure 3: Michigan State Yearly Win % and Luck (2005-2011)

I'll give Mark Dantonio this: he's improved the Michigan State product since he came into the job in 2007 (miss you John L. Smith!) Controversial statement, I know. Still, there's some evidence of chinks in the armor. For all his reputation as a defensive coach, last year was really the only year where the defense was something to write home about (though it was quite nice last year), with a possibly exception in 2008. Also, that gaudy 44-22 record? A lot less pretty when you consider that before 2010, it was 22-17. Granted, he still coached those teams, and 22-5 over the two most recent years is something that looks pretty nice under any light.

But my point is that years like 2011 are atypical for Michigan State, and to expect that performance to continue unabated isn't rational. That's not even considering the effect that a resurgent Michigan will have on the Spartans (props for taking care of the opportunity when it arose the last four years, though). If Michigan State really is a "Sleeping Giant" and if the success over the last two years is going to become commonplace, it's going to take a change from the norm. Maybe Dantonio has instilled that change, but one year does not a trend make. Yet.

Scary, Scary Defense (Michigan State 2011 Season)

Won Outback Bowl vs Georgia (33-30)

Okay, I'll stop bad-mouthing Dantonio for a bit. While I think his defensive reputation is a bit over-stated, he took a large step towards justifying that with 2011. The Spartans defense was good to great in nearly every game last year, with the only poor performances coming against (guess!) Notre Dame and Minnesota. Fortunately, Minnesota sucked so Michigan State (barely) held on to that win, and Notre Dame was out-of-conference, so whatevs.

The offense was a bit more erratic, on the other hand (see the chart above for an illustration). They turned in great performances against Wisconsin, and let me tell you: it was damn frustrating to see Kirk Cousins turn into a Joe Montana/Aaron Rodgers cyborg against my favorite team, when he was merely inconsistently good on any other week. I checked CFBStats to verify this assumption of mine, and here's what I found:

KIRK COUSINS' BEST PERFORMANCES OF 2011 (by QB rating)

1) Indiana (211)

2) Florida Atlantic (189)

3) Northwestern (182)

4) Youngstown State (181)

5) Wisconsin I (181)

6) Wisconsin II (178)

Okay, well that doesn't exactly adhere to my assumptions, but it's close enough. I'll pretend the first four slots don't count, because those teams suck. My larger point was that Michigan State, like Kirk Cousins, manages to play and look elite during some games (the Wisconsin games being the best example), while playing and looking like absolute crap during others (the Nebraska game being the best example).

And that's what makes it so hard to take Michigan State seriously (that, and their extremely annoying fans). We tend to measure teams not by their best performances, but by their worst (generally). Oklahoma State is remembered not for their Fiesta Bowl win against Stanford, not for their shellacking of Oklahoma, but for that overtime loss to Iowa State that derailed their championship hopes. Alabama is not remembered for having a good offense (it's true, check the box scores) led by a Heisman quality running back, but by that 9-6 abomination they played against LSU.

Michigan State's legacy? Well, yes that Hail Mary (FVCK YOU KEITH NICHOL), but I'd argue that's more Wisconsin's painful memory. No, I'd say Michigan State's season was more summed up in that final play of the Big Ten Championship game: running into the punter and losing the game. It's the reason "SPARTY NO" will never fade from our lexicon, because ultimately Sparty will find a way to fumble all their talent and success away.

Big Ten Championship?!? (Michigan State 2012 Preview and Projections)

Avg Opp Rank: 50.5 (Avg Non-Con: 59.7, Avg Conf: 45.9)

Final Record: 8-4 (6-2), Avg MOV: 9.3 pts, Bowl Prediction: Outback Bowl

Sorry about that win projection (NOTE: I'm not sorry at all), but it's honestly not that controversial if you really look at it. First, as far as stuff that my Excel sheets don't look at, Michigan State has to replace several important players. Kirk Cousins and his dreamy eyes (I'm required by my female friends to mention that) is the obvious one, but there's also Jerel Worthy (who I am delighted went to the Packers, because it means I can continue to hate him with no reservations), and ALL FOUR leading receivers from last year (BJ Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, Brian Linthicum, and Keith Nichol). Uff-da, Andrew Maxwell's going to have his work cut out for him. Quite frankly, no one replaces a senior quarterback and doesn't regress the next year, unless the previous quarterback sucked (Russell Wilson for Scott Tolzein excepted, fortunately) Yes, Le'Veon Bell returns, but as much as MSULaxer wants you to drink the Kool-Aid, he's not Montee Ball in a green uniform.

As far as the schedule, Michigan and Wisconsin are both on the road, which doesn't help matters. Boise State and Notre Dame are both at home though, so perhaps I'm selling Sparty short here. I'll do my best to justify those picks. Boise State is Boise State. They're always prepared for those early out-of-conference road games, and they're always underestimated. If I had to choose, my gut would go with Michigan State because the Broncos have to replace quite a few players of their own (part of the problem with ignoring player attrition in these numbers), but it's safe to say that I would not be surprised in the slightest if they took a W back to Idaho.

Notre Dame was not as bad as their record would indicate in 2011. They had incredibly bad turnover luck and timing, but when they managed to not screw themselves over, they were quite good (as 2011 Spartan fans can attest). They ranked 11th in my numbers for a reason, and another year with Brian Kelly should help them out (assuming he doesn't pop a blood vessel before then).

Fortunately, the next toughest tests (Ohio State, Nebraska, and Iowa) all come at home, so the Spartans really got a nice draw from the schedule makers. Whether they can do something with that remains to be seen.

Best case for Michigan State: 10-2 (6-2). Now I know that seems low, especially considering the home-road schedule set-up. Hear me out. I'll grant Michigan State a 4-0 non-conference record, as Boise State and Notre Dame come to Spartan Stadium, so it'll be a favorable environment. I'll even grant a road win over Michigan, four straight years of victories will earn you that. I won't give y'all a win over Wisconsin in Camp Randall, for reasons that shouldn't need explanation (in all honesty, Camp Randall is a tough environment anyway). And finally, I have to give the annual Michigan State meltdown game to someone. It was Iowa in 2010, it was Nebraska in 2011, and it'll be someone else in 2012. Unfortunately, the toughest road games remaining are... Indiana and Minnesota. I'll say Minnesota, then. They have a good track record on Thanksgiving weekend recently at least. Fortunately, this would still see Michigan State in the conference title game (depending on Michigan's other losses), so there's that.

Worst case for Michigan State: 7-5 (4-4). I actually can't see the Spartans losing to both Boise and Notre Dame, much as I'd like, so I'll say they make it 3-1 there. Throw in two projected losses to Michigan and Wisconsin (reasonable) and that's three losses already. The other two would come from the trio of Iowa, Nebraska, and Ohio State. This is assuming some major growing pains from Andrew Maxwell, but again: a new WR corps doesn't offer a lot of cushion for him. Oh, and a bowl loss. That would be necessary.

Glossary and Explanation of Terms!

For a more in-depth explanation of everything see my primer here. I've also included a direct link to my 2011 Rankings [LINKY] for those that really want to see the nitty gritty details. Otherwise, the below should serve as a quick reference.

For the purposes of this section, I will refer to Average State University (ASU). ASU scores 25 pts/game on offense, gives up 25 pts/game on defense, and has an Adj Off, Def of 1.00 and 1.00, respectively.

Adj Off - a measure of a team's scoring offense, adjusted for schedule. A team with an Adj Off of 2.00 would be expected to score 50 pts on ASU. A team with an Adj Off of 0.50 would be expected to score 12-13 pts on ASU.

Adj Def - a measure of a team's scoring defense, adjusted for schedule. A team with an Adj Def of 2.00 would be expected to give up 50 pts to ASU. A team with and Adj Def of 0.50 would be expected to hold ASU to 12-13 pts.

Adj Eff - a measure of a team's overall strength, AdjEff = AdjOff/(AdjOff + AdjDef). A perfect rating would be 1.00, a perfectly bad rating would be 0.00, a perfectly average rating would be 0.50. This rating tends to reward teams with good defenses more than good offenses.

Adj Marg - a measure of a team's overall strength, AdjMarg = AdjOff - AdjDef. A good rating would be > 0.00, a bad rating would be < 0.00, a perfectly average rating would be 0.00. This rating tends to reward teams with good offenses more than good defenses.

(NOTE: While I list both Adj Eff and Adj Marg as measures of overall team strength, the "official" rankings are Adj Marg, as I find it tends (usually) to be a slightly better predictor of game results than Adj Eff.)

Opp Rat - the average rating of a team's opponents, as determined by Adj Marg. A relatively difficult schedule will have OppRat > 0.00, a relatively easy schedule will have OppRat < 0.00, a perfectly average schedule will have OppRat = 0.00.

Luck - the difference between a team's expected winning percentage (based on schedule and expected scores) and their actual winning percentage. Luck > 0.00 indicates that a team won more games than they were expected, Luck < 0.00 means that a team won less games than they were expected.

Projected Scores - these are based on a team's Adj Off, Def and their opponent's Adj Off, Def. I won't bore you with the math or reasoning, but suffice to say that expected scores align uniformly with the Adj Marg rankings. The expected score differential is proportional to the Adj Marg differential.

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