Off Tackle Empire is still looking for a Michigan State beat writer, but until that happens I find myself living in Metro Detroit and good friends with Sparty Correspondent Emeritus Green Akers and thus I am the staff writer with the finger closest to the pulse of Sparty Nation.
And let me tell you, they went through it this past season.
In fact, I think there’s no question that they had the worst season of anyone in the Big Ten. Sure, they won more games than Indiana and beat them head to head, but there’s several reasons MSU had it worse.
First off, Indiana had very low expectations as they were just trying to see if Tom Allen had a miracle in him, while Michigan State hoped to see Mel Tucker salvage a program two years removed from an 11-2 campaign.
Second, and I can’t stress this enough, Michigan State’s head coach was fired two weeks into the season for having non-consensual one-way phone sex with a person whose entire purpose of being at Michigan State was to educate college athletes on every aspect of affirmative consent.
When you compare this to bad Michigan State seasons, there’s really none you can compare to this because none of them came with the added embarrassment of firing your head coach because he made sexual advances on the sexual assault consultant.
The year started with a 31-7 win over Central Michigan that was uncomfortably close well into the third quarter. The Tucker news broke after a meaningless FCS cupcake win. I honestly don’t know that the Spartans’ record would have been any different if Tucker hadn’t fumbled generational wealth by doing dirty deeds to the single person in the world most likely to report him for it, but the firing certainly made the season feel meaningless. MSU’s starting quarterback and star receiver had been poached by SEC teams in the transfer portal. They had varying degrees of success, but MSU was not set up to thrive in 2023 regardless of Mel Tugger’s illicit phone activities.
After a monumentally disappointing 5-7 campaign in 2022 with a defense that allowed 27.4 points per game, Tucker decided to run it back with both coordinators for a fourth year. With the job security afforded by his massive $95 million contract, he bet on Scottie Hazelton to come up with some way to make this defense better without really even adding to the secondary in the transfer portal. Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson’s assignment was no easier, as he’d be expected to maintain production despite having to replace multi-year starting QB Payton Thorne and star receivers Keon Coleman (who played his way to easy first round draft status with Florida State) and Jayden Reed (who caught 64 balls for the Green Bay Packers).
Both failed spectacularly. The defense only got one point per game worse, but the offense imploded to 15.7 PPG, good for 131st in FBS football. If you wished Hazelton’s unit would be the superior one for once, congratulations!
I keep repeating what Mel Tucker did because it’s hard to parse what a stupid thing it was. The crazy thing is that ever since he landed that huge contract, he’s been underperforming it so badly that MSU fans started looking for a way out. Would he have performed better if his focus didn’t abruptly shift to aggressively pursuing Brenda Tracy late in the 2021 season? I guess we’ll never know!
This season would have been a disaster even if Tucker had been the coach through the whole thing. The program he built was a house of cards, a mirage built on the backs of upperclassmen he inherited and a few choice recruits including an absolute superstar running back. Still, he had $95 million guaranteed!
Until he busted history’s most expensive nut.
The details of the games are barely even important. After extremely-Confederate-colonel-name-having-ass Harlon Barnett was named interim head coach, MSU was dismantled by eventual national runner-up Washington. Maryland spoiled Homecoming and held MSU to single digits for the second time in two weeks.
Against Iowa, they held a lead and a real chance to win until their offense stalled and the Hawkeyes scored an extremely dumb touchdown. A tale as old as time.
A loss to Rutgers confirmed that MSU was now in the bottom tier of the East, and they would have a six game losing streak before a 20-17 home win against Nebaska Cornhuskers. Their other Big Ten win came at Indiana in a 24-21 victory for the Old Brass Spittoon, but it was sandwiched by losses of 38-3 and 42-0.
If all this wasn’t enough to convince you that Michigan State had the worst Big Ten season this year, consider the controversy around their decision to play their final home game at Ford Field in Detroit instead of Spartan Stadium. On one hand, you always want your team playing at home. On the other, it’s Thanksgiving break and metro Detroit surely has enough Spartan faithful to fill the stadium. Some of these people never get to go to East Lansing for games! Detroit X Michigan State forever!
They drew under 52,000 to the 65,000-capacity stadium and got run out of the building 42-0 against Penn State. The experiment proved that Detroit is not crazy about the Spartans nor should they be.
But the final cherry on top of the shit sundae Spartans fans were force-fed this season is that the hated Michigan Wolverines, who were getting fawning local coverage even as MSU won the Big Ten and went to the College Football Playoff back in 2015, pasted them 49-0 in East Lansing on their way to a national championship. It’s no exaggeration to describe this outcome as a living nightmare for Spartans fans.
There were no redeeming qualities of this season in and of itself, but it may yet lead to prosperity. Michigan State got a chance to start over with a new head coach and they brought in a promising program-builder in Oregon State‘s Jonathan Smith. It’s never been a more crucial time to hire the right coach, since a college football singularity event is now on the horizon. There’s no way of knowing if they nailed it, but there is one thing we can know:
2024 certainly can’t be any worse for Spartans fans than 2023.