Despite dropping two high-profile matchups with elite opponents, the Spartans maintained momentum with another top-5 finish last year. But with the Playoff up and running and Urban Meyer's death machine looking fully operational, it's fair to ask- is that good enough for this program anymore?
I. Case History and Opening Statement
A. Case History
2013 was a very tough act to follow. The grand catharsis of a breakthrough season 25 years in the making necessarily begs a question- well, now what? The Rose Bowl and conference championship were great, but once you've been to the Promised Land, anything less feels a bit hollow, doesn't it?
Well, we can't all be Alabama football or Kansas basketball or the New England Patriots. For most of us, championships don't happen every year, and sure enough, MSU couldn't match the 2013 season in terms of banner accomplishments. Dropping an early-season matchup with Oregon pushed MSU to the periphery of the Playoff picture, and a second loss to Ohio State put an all but assured end to their conference championship hopes as well.
And yet, the Spartans still won 10 games in the regular season, rolled hated rival Michigan again, and won an instant classic Cotton Bowl with Baylor. The defense struggled to handle elite spread offenses, but was still excellent against most other opponents- and if we're being fair, there really aren't any defenses anywhere which have been able to consistently corral today's sophisticated attacks. The offense was the best in school history and brings back a third year starter at QB behind an excellent line. Sure, there are things to be concerned about going forward, but even with a few major objectives left unachieved, last year is still hard to complain about.
B. Opening Statement
Last year, for the first time arguably in the program's history, MSU entered a season with high preseason expectations and did not faceplant to a round of laughter from the conference audience. Six times before last season, MSU began the season ranked in the top 15. All six times, they ended the season unranked. The Sparty, No! moniker was undoubtedly well earned, historically speaking.
Last year represented proof positive that those days are over. No, MSU did not repeat its transcendent 2013 season, but 11 wins with a Playoff bowl bid should serve notice that this program isn't sliding back into the muck. Now, the Spartans are equipped to make another run at a truly special season, and there are plenty of reasons to conclude they will do it.
First, this is the only team in the conference with the top-end talent to go toe-to-toe with Ohio State. Three reasonable candidates for first-round selections in QB Connor Cook, LT Jack Conklin, and DE Shilique Calhoun, another likely All-American in center Jack Allen, and plenty of all-conference talent dotting the rest of the two-deep will make this one of the few teams to even give the Buckeyes a game.
Second, the schedule is challenging enough that the Playoff committee might be willing to forgive a loss. A nonconference matchup with Oregon, the crossover matchup with Nebraska, and a road game at Ohio State presents enough glamour that there will at least be an argument to be made if the Spartans can't run a table. Of course, one would prefer to make that an academic argument by simply sweeping the field, but very few teams ever manage that, and having the schedule to justify a loss has to be seen as a positive.
Third, the weaknesses on the roster are in places where it's relatively easy to find new standouts. Pulling a starting QB or multiple standouts on both sides of the line of scrimmage typically takes years of development; finding a new tailback is more manageable. Cornerback is a major concern, as well, but if there's a position this coaching staff has been able to reload consistently, the defensive secondary would be it.
The road isn't easy. Last year, the three biggest conference games- OSU, Michigan, and Nebraska- were all in East Lansing, meaning that this year, none of them will be. Longtime defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi leaves a large void to fill, and a new cast of offensive skill players will need to step forward. Frankly, there were more serious issues going into last season, and MSU came reasonably close to surpassing 2013's accomplishments.
C. Timeline of Events
|4-Sep||at Western Michigan|
|21-Nov||at Ohio State|
It's a Playoff-worthy schedule, no doubt about it. A big-time nonconference opponent early in the season, a road trip to the defending champ's place late enough in the season that the picture will have taken shape, road games at places that aren't usually easy to win in Nebraska and Michigan...heck, even Western Michigan could be a deceptively tough game with the Fightin' Rowboats expected to be a power in the MAC. And you never like to see a service academy tossed in there with no prep time.
A. What We've Written About Michigan State This Offseason
III. Emotional Plea
Ladies and gentleschmucks of the commentariat, this is a program which is here to stay. Those of you who hoped that 2013 was a flash in the pan are pathetically, hilariously mistaken. That's not to say there won't be some ups and downs from year to year. But this is going to be one of the 'up' seasons. Most preseason discussion has given MSU 10 wins without much thought; it's all about whether the Spartans can close in the big moments. Consider the state of this program before Dantonio, or even in the first few years of his tenure, and try to convince yourselves anything less than a very strong season, with a chance for something truly special, is coming.Before you do, I'll remind you that you all took an oath to not read this article and instead get into a flame war about some recruit from New Jersey, and ask you to consider that oath carefully.
|Aaron Yorke||11-1 (7-1)|
|Brian Gillis||10-2 (6-2)|
|Ray Ransom||11-1 (7-1)|
|DJ Carver||11-1 (7-1)|
|Jesse Collins||11-1 (7-1)|
|Mike Jones (RIP)||10-2 (7-1)|
|Hilary Lee||9-3 (6-2)|
|Graham Filler||11-1 (7-1)|
So nobody's willing to pull the trigger on the OSU upset...well, hard to argue with that on paper, but we'll see (I didn't get my predictions in on time, but I wouldn't have picked MSU to pull it off, either). General consensus minus a couple of haters is another double-digit win season; the staff has a decent feeling MSU will beat Oregon, but plenty of people also suspect there's another conference loss on that schedule.