The Mel Tucker Era of Michigan State football has been a wild ride so far. Arriving in East Lansing shortly before COVID-19 did, a thoroughly-disrupted first offseason and diminished roster led to a 2-5 debut season.
But Tucker navigated the transfer portal better than any coach has thus far and, energized by talent such as RB Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State vaulted to an 11-2 record in 2021, refilling the trophy case and eating millions of peaches in Atlanta to end the season.
Walker’s transcendent talent has traded the green-and-neon for the blue-and-neon of the Seattle Seahawks, and that 11-win mark belied a few serious roster weaknesses last year. So if 2020 was pretty close to a worst-case disaster and 2021 could not reasonably have gone much better, what do we get in 2022?
Discovery // What We Learned This Offseason
By far the biggest question facing the Spartan offense is what to do to replace Walker, though he’s not the only skill piece moving on and the offensive line also lost a cohort of highly experienced players. Still, the return of QB Payton Thorne and top weapon WR Jayden Reed could allow the passing game to carry a ground attack that might need some space to find its way.
Defensively, the run defense’s continued sturdiness was offset by a catastrophically bad pass defense. That Tucker and his staff only added one defensive back via the portal, but several linebackers and defensive ends, suggests they view the pass rush as being the real problem. Whatever the true issue is, improving to at least merely below-average against the pass is a must.
After the stability - or perhaps, towards the end, staleness - of the Mark Dantonio coaching staff, where changes were a rarity, it’s plain that Tucker’s assistants will more resemble many other programs where assistants come and go regularly. Tucker’s new hires are a mix of a more traditional veteran (DL coach Marco Coleman), an up-and-comer (RBs coach Effrem Reed), and an outside-the-box swing for the fences that immediately changed MSU’s recruiting profile (pass rush specialist Brandon Jordan).
For many more details from a long-winded Spartan gasbag, consider the podcast!
Also, a brief write-up on the sad state of Michigan State hockey, although since this piece was written, new coach Adam Nightingale has made some recruiting headway that offers a few rays of hope. For the future. Like, almost definitely not this year.
Argument // I Believe In A Thing Called Tuck
Ladies and gentlemen of the commentariat and shitposting masthead, I understand fully if, at this point, you’re not entirely willing to take a previous year’s Michigan State football outcome as evidence of anything.
Since 2015, this program’s win totals have been: 12, 3, 10, 7, 7, 2, 11. As much as Mark Dantonio wanted to set a higher, Iowa/Wisconsinesque floor, he didn’t really achieve that, although he did probably hit higher ceilings than most people thought possible in East Lansing, too. Consistency has been the furthest thing from this program’s results for the better part of a decade now, so if you look at that crypto-stock-ticker-ass trend line and conclude ‘well, whatever MSU does, it sure won’t look like last season,’ I get it.
But it’s also not like Michigan State’s 2021 was built solely on striking gold with one exception player in Kenneth Walker III. Tucker’s work in the transfer portal landed MSU its starting left tackle, three corners who all played a ton, a promising tight end, a quality reserve defensive end, and a quarterback who narrowly lost the starting job. In other words, Tucker didn’t just flood the roster with new bodies - every transfer who was healthy enough to play had at least a supporting role, if not a major one.
After last year’s success on that front, this year’s transfer class is better on paper. A multi-year starting center from Washington State; a multi-year starting tight end from Illinois; the former PAC-12 Offensive Player of the Year at running back; an All-MWC linebacker from UNLV who racked 113 tackles last year; a former top-100 recruit from Florida.
If it’s a fair question to ask who will be this year’s gamebreaker like Kenneth Walker was, it’s a fair answer that there are a half-dozen legitimate candidates. And, those guys join a team with more answers than questions, with a capable starting QB, dynamic top receiver, and proven pieces at most positions. If the pass rush can shorten the secondary’s coverage clock a bit and the offensive line doesn’t force the backs to do everything themselves, we might just have a stew going.
Sept. 2 vs Western Michigan
Sept. 10 vs Akron
Sept. 17 @ Washington
Sept. 24 vs Minnesota
Oct. 1 @ Maryland
Oct. 8 vs Ohio State
Oct. 15 vs Wisconsin
Oct. 29 @ Michigan
Nov. 5 @ Illinois
Nov. 12 vs Rutgers
Nov. 19 vs Indiana
Nov. 26 @ Penn State
Most pessimistic prediction: He was a HS QB, 6-6 (4-5)
Most optimistic prediction: MNWildcat & RockyMtnBlue, 10-2 (7-2)
Average prediction: 8-4 (5-3)
My opinion: Meh, sounds about right I guess (I do not normally partake of preseason record predictions).
Washington’s more of a live wire than their record last year suggests, and Kalen DeBoer’s offense will be an early stress test for a pass defense that has a long way to go just to be decent. The run of OSU-Wisconsin-@ Michigan, even with a bye in the middle, is the ceiling-determining stretch, but their games against rough peers in Washington, Minnesota, and Penn State could go a lot of different ways, too. Overall, 8-4 sounds about right.