July B1G 20XX placement for a team that won 11 games and a New Years Six bowl? Tough neighborhood, man.
Mel Tucker’s sophomore season as the head coach in East Lansing wildly exceeded expectations, which to my memory were generally ‘well, we need to make a bowl for sure’ and outside the fanbase were even lower than that, recalling that O/U line mentioned above.
That was perhaps understandable coming off of 2020’s 2-5 record, but anyone who cared to consider the context would have seen a team primed for major improvement. An actual offseason for coaching and scheme installation, plus a huge infusion of transfer portal talent, should have indicated a big step forward was on the horizon.
So How’d 2021 Go?
Great! The first real marks of a turnaround season didn’t wait long to reveal themselves. A season-opening romp over Northwestern brought the name of Kenneth Walker III to the nation’s attention. But the Week 3 road win over an ostensibly more-talented Miami team, wherein Michigan State was the visibly better-conditioned team in the South Florida sun, was the point where the question shifted from ‘can we be any good?’ to ‘what isn’t on the table?’
Narrow escapes over Nebraska and Indiana ran Michigan State to 7-0 heading into the October bye, ahead of a Halloween weekend tilt with also-undefeated Michigan. The Spartans then did what they do anytime they’re any good at all, and beat Michigan in front of a national audience. Walker became the first player to ever score five rushing touchdowns against Michigan, Wolverine fans added another moment to their pantheon of crappy excuses for losing, and the beat rolled on.
...Until the next week, when a season-long vulnerability met an opponent with a type advantage to absolutely blast that weak spot. Purdue QB Aidan O’Connell scorched the hapless Spartan pass defense for over 500 yards, and after a rebound win over Maryland, Michigan State was outclassed in all phases by Ohio State to fall out of the division race.
A thrilling blizzard win over Penn State in the Land Grant game sent MSU to the Peach Bowl, though the game’s national shine diminished somewhat when Walker and Pitt QB Kenny Pickett both opted to sit the game out. Still, the Spartans came back from Atlanta with a lovely trophy to set in the case alongside the Spittoon, the Land Grant, and Paul Bunyan.
What About This Year?
Replacing Walker will be a big storyline; without him in the bowl game, MSU’s run game was as powerless as it had been the previous few years. But the offense returns its two other cornerstones - QB Payton Thorne isn’t a new starter anymore, and WR Jayden Reed passed on the draft for one more go-around. Finding some combo of improvement from the offensive line and non-Walker tailbacks will be the orders of the day for the offseason.
Defensively, the offseason moves suggest that the coaches viewed the pass rush as more of an issue than the pass coverage in explaining that unit’s weakness through the air. DEs Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley are the biggest losses, but a wave of imports at end and linebacker plus solid returning players at DT and S give this group an interesting ceiling. Again, that a coaching staff not at all shy about using the portal only picked up one defensive back (Georgia CB Ameer Speed) indicates that they believe in the guys they have back there and are looking for a better rush to bring it all together.
As far as newcomers go, transfers will again likely grab larger roles than freshmen. Beyond Speed, OG/C Brian Greene (Washington State), RBs Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) and Jarek Broussard (Colorado), TE Daniel Barker (Illinois), LBs Jacoby Windmon (UNLV) and Aaron Brule (MissSt), and DE Khris Bogle (Florida) are all quite likely to figure into the rotations at their positions. Greene in particular is an under-the-radar candidate to step straight into a starting role on an offensive line that hasn’t stood out in a long time.
September (Friday) vs Western Michigan
September 10 vs Akron
September 17 @ Washington
September 24 Minnesota
October 1 @ Maryland
October 8 Ohio State
October 15 Wisconsin
October 22 BYE
October 29 @ Michigan
November 5 @ Illinois
November 12 Rutgers
November 19 Indiana
November 26 @ Penn State
There are offseason questions to answer, for sure, but it’s still a much more comfortable feeling, both short- and long-term, than it was last offseason. Enough talent returns to feel confident against most non-Ohio State opponents, and Tucker’s recruiting focus shows that he understands what’s needed to summit that and the other national powerhouse-shaped mountains out there.
This schedule shapes up pretty well? A couple of MACtion games that won’t be total rollovers before litmus tests against Washington and Minnesota, and the beat drops in October with the OSU/Wisconsin/Michigan stretch. How MSU performs in that stretch determines what there is to play for in November.
Michigan State’s 2022 win total will be:
This poll is closed
5 or fewer