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How does Michigan State’s 2021 football team compare to other successful Spartan teams?

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A statistical comparison of all six Michigan State teams to win at least 11 games in a single season.

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Pittsburgh v Michigan State Photo by Adam Hagy/Getty Images

The 2021 Michigan State Spartans football team was projected by some media outlets to finish dead last in the Big Ten East Division, and projected by various betting sites to finish with less than five wins on the season. Instead, to just about everybody’s surprise, head coach Mel Tucker led his team to an 11-2 finish and a New Year’s six victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers in the Peach Bowl.

This season marked just the sixth 11-win season in Michigan State program history — all of which have come since 2010 (2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2021).

Now that this season has finished for the Spartans, there has been more time to reflect. I was curious how the 2021 Michigan State team stacked up, statistically, to previous 11-win MSU teams.

Below is a look at how all six teams compare in various statistical categories. The Michigan State team that leads in each category will be listed first and in bold. All statistics were referenced from msuspartans.com.

Author’s Note: A huge thank you to Paul Fanson for creating the excellent bar graphs below to help visualize the data.

Overall records:

  • 2013: 13-1
  • 2015: 12-2
  • 2021: 11-2
  • 2014: 11-2
  • 2010: 11-2
  • 2011: 11-3

Scoring Offense and Defense

Points scored per game (cumulative):

  • 2014: 43.0
  • 2021: 31.85
  • 2011: 31.4
  • 2015: 29.8
  • 2010: 29.5
  • 2013: 29.4

Points allowed per game (cumulative):

  • 2013: 13.2
  • 2011: 18.4
  • 2014: 21.5
  • 2015: 21.7
  • 2010: 22.3
  • 2021: 25.31
Michigan State 11-win teams: Points per game scored versus points per game allowed comparison
Paul Fanson

As the metrics illustrate, the 2014 team was an offensive juggernaut. That particular squad averaged 43 points per game (ranked No. 7 nationally), which is more than 11 points higher than the next team, which happens to be the 2021 team that averaged about 31.9 points per game. The 2011 squad isn’t far behind the 2021 team at 31.4 points per game. The 2014 defense wasn’t too shabby on defense either, allowing just 21.5 points per game (outscoring opponents by an average margin of 21.5 points per game).

Unfortunately for the 2014 team, its only two losses that season were against the two teams that played for the national championship (eventual champion Ohio State and runner-up Oregon). When Michigan State fans think of recent great MSU football teams, the 2013 version that won a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl, and the 2015 team that also won a conference championship and was the first (and only so far) MSU team to make the College Football Playoff immediately come to mind, but the 2014 team deserves its respect, too, and a lot of these metrics highlight that.

As mentioned, the 2021 team stacks up well offensively in terms of points scored. However, unsurprisingly, the most recent team also gave up the most points per game at 25.3. With that said, it’s important to keep in mind just how dominant these other defenses were.

As for points allowed, the 2013 team was on another level, allowing just over 13 points per game — less than two touchdowns and two extra points per game — which ranked No. 3 in the country that season. The 2011 team was also strong in this category, allowing just 18.4 points per game.


Yardage Gained By Offense

Total yards per game:

  • 2014: 500.8
  • 2021: 429.3
  • 2011: 390.4
  • 2010: 388.5
  • 2015: 385.5
  • 2013: 385.5

Passing yards per game:

  • 2014: 265.6
  • 2021: 253.69
  • 2011: 252.5
  • 2010: 236.4
  • 2015: 234.2
  • 2013: 211.7

Rushing yards per game:

  • 2014: 235.2
  • 2021: 175.6
  • 2013: 173.8
  • 2010: 152.2
  • 2015: 151.3
  • 2011: 137.9
Michigan State 11-win teams: offensive yardage per game comparison
Paul Fanson

Offensively, once again, the 2014 team is head and shoulders above the rest of the group with 500.8 total yards per game, which is more than 71 yards compared to the next team. And once again, the 2021 squad ranks highly, with 429.3 yards per game, the second-highest mark of the six teams. The 2014 team averaged both the most passing yards and most rushing yards per game, while the 2021 team ranks second in both categories among the six teams.

Ironically, the 2013 and 2015 Big Ten championship teams actually had the lowest total offensive yardage output (both averaged 385.5 total yards per game). The 2011 team had the lowest rushing yards per game average (137.9), but ranks third among the six teams in passing yards per game (252.5). The 2013 team comes in last in passing yards per game within the group (211.7).


Yardage Allowed By Defense

Total yards allowed per game:

  • 2013: 252.2
  • 2011: 277.4
  • 2014: 315.8
  • 2015: 349.9
  • 2010: 353.8
  • 2021: 441.9

Passing yards allowed per game:

  • 2013: 165.6
  • 2011: 176.9
  • 2010: 220.1
  • 2014: 227.3
  • 2015: 233.9
  • 2021: 324.77

Rushing yards allowed per game:

  • 2013: 86.6
  • 2014: 88.5
  • 2011: 100.5
  • 2015: 116.0
  • 2021: 117.2
  • 2010: 133.7
Michigan State 11-win teams: yardage allowed comparison
Paul Fanson

The 2013 defense was incredibly good. That unit ranked No. 1 in the nation in total defense (252.2 yards per game), and as mentioned above, No. 3 in the nation in points per game allowed. The Spartans also ranked in the top-three nationally against both the pass (165.6 yards per game) and the run (86.3 yards per game) in 2013. The 2011 and 2014 teams also had defensive units that ranked in the top-10 nationally in total defense.

The 2010 defense and 2015 defenses were also fairly dominant, both ranking in the top-45 in FBS in total defense. Unsurprisingly, the only outlier in this group is the 2021 squad, which gave up an astounding 441.9 yards per game, a difference of more than 88 yards compared the next lowest-ranked team in the group, which is the 2010 squad (353.8 yards per game). The 2021 Spartans gave up the most passing yards per game in the FBS by a wide margin (324.8), but were actually strong against the run, allowing 117.2 yards per game, which ranked 15th in the nation this past season.


Yards Gained Per Play and Yards Allowed Per Play

Offensive yards per play:

  • 2014: 6.5
  • 2021: 6.3
  • 2010: 6.2
  • 2011: 5.8
  • 2015: 5.4
  • 2013: 5.4

Yards per play allowed by defense:

  • 2013: 4.0
  • 2011: 4.3
  • 2014: 5.1
  • 2010: 5.3
  • 2015: 5.5
  • 2021: 5.6
Michigan State 11-win teams: yards per play comparison
Paul Fanson

In terms of yards per play, MSU’s 2014 offense is once again at the top of the chart (6.5 yards per play), while the 2021 team (6.3) and 2010 team (6.2) are not far behind. Somewhat surprisingly, the 2013 Rose Bowl championship team and the 2015 College Football Playoff team are tied for last in this metric (5.4 yards per play).

Unsurprisingly, the 2013 defense (4.0 yards allowed per play) absolutely dominated in this metric. The 2011 team (4.3 yards allowed per play) was strong in this category. The 2014 Spartans (5.1) and the 2010 Spartans (5.3) were quite respectable in yards allowed per play, too. What might come as a bit of a surprise is that Michigan State’s 2021 team (5.6 yards allowed per play) is actually on par with Michigan State’s 2015 defense (5.5 yards allowed per play). Overall, all six teams fared pretty well in this category.


Third-Down and Fourth-Down Offensive Efficiency

Third-down conversion percentage:

  • 2014: 50.0 percent (97-for-194)
  • 2015: 48.5 percent (99-for-204)
  • 2013: 44.1 percent (94-for-213)
  • 2021: 40.91 percent (72-for-176)
  • 2011: 38.6 percent (78-for-202)
  • 2010: 37.5 percent (63-for-168)

Fourth-down conversion percentage:

  • 2010: 70.5 percent (12-for-17)
  • 2021: 70.0 percent (14-for-20)
  • 2013: 64.2 percent (9-for-14)
  • 2011: 55.5 percent (10-for-18)
  • 2014: 52.9 percent (9-for-17)
  • 2015: 42.1 percent (8-for-19)
Michigan State 11-win teams: offensive third-down and fourth-down efficiency comparison
Paul Fanson

In terms of third-down conversation percentage, the 2014 team once again reigns supreme among the group, and is the only Michigan State squad of the six to reach a 50 percent conversion rate. MSU’s 2014 team ranked in the top-10 nationally in this metric. The 2015 team was also strong on third down at 48.5 percent, and ranked in the top-10 nationally that season as well. The 2013 team was solid as well at 44.1 percent. The 2021 team wasn’t quite on par with those other three teams, but was tied for 63rd nationally at 40.9 percent. The 2010 and 2011 teams struggled on third down.

While the 2010 team had the lowest third-down conversion percentage, it actually had the highest fourth-down conversion percentage (70.5 percent), granted that was only on 17 attempts. The 2021 team is right on par with 2010 at 70 percent, on more total attempts (20). The 2015 team struggled the most on fourth down in this group, converting just eight of its 19 attempts (42.1 percent).


Third-Down and Fourth-Down Defensive Efficiency

Third-down conversion percentage allowed:

  • 2013: 27.9 percent (57-for-204)
  • 2014: 31.3 percent (57-for-182)
  • 2011: 33.6 percent (67-for-199)
  • 2015: 34.9 percent (65-for-186)
  • 2010: 39.4 percent (71-for-180)
  • 2021: 40.38 percent (86-for-213)

Fourth-down conversion percentage allowed:

  • 2013: 31.5 percent (6-for-19)
  • 2011: 45.0 percent (9-for-20)
  • 2014: 47.6 percent (10-for-21)
  • 2015: 51.6 percent (16-for-31)
  • 2010: 61.9 percent (13-for-21)
  • 2021: 64.86 percent (24-for-37)
Michigan State 11-win teams: defensive third-down and fourth-down efficiency comparison
Paul Fanson

Once again, these metrics highlight just how dominant the 2013 defense was. That year, the Spartans ranked second nationally in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert at just a 27.9 percent ranked. The 2013 defense also only allowed teams to convert on 31.5 percent of fourth-down conversions, which ranked eighth nationally that season. The 2014 defense also ranked in the top-10 in FBS in terms of third-down conversion percentage (31.3 percent). The 2011 (33.6 percent) and 2015 (34.9 percent) teams were also fairly strong at stopping opposing teams on third down.

The 2021 defense, perhaps unsurprisingly, ranks last in the group of six teams in both third-down and forth-down conversion percentage allowed. That said, the 2021 Spartans also faced the most third-down and fourth-down attempts from opponents. The 2013 team was the only squad to allow less than a 45 percent fourth-down conversion rate.


Final thoughts: It’s not surprising that the 2021 Michigan State team ranks highly on offense in this group of 11-win Michigan State teams, ranking in the top-two in points per game, total yards per game, passing yards per game, rushing yards per game, yards per play and fourth-down conversion percentage. This year’s offense, while not always efficient, made a lot of big plays and had constant home run threats in Kenneth Walker III, Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor, with Payton Thorne leading the offense. The 2021 offense would go into occasional droughts at times during game, but it could also score at will.

It is also not surprising that the 2021 team ranks last in almost every defensive metric examined between the six teams. This year’s Spartans truly struggled to stop the pass, ranking last in the FBS in yards allowed per game (324.8). However, MSU also faced the most passing attempts against per game (44.5), which equates to 579 total attempts. As mentioned, the unit was strong against the run, however, allowing 117.2 yards per game (15th in FBS).

Also, I think this article truly highlights just how dominant the 2013 Michigan State defense was, and also shows that the 2011 defense menacing as well. I think the metrics also show that the 2014 team may have been the most complete MSU team under Mark Dantonio — a high-powered offense and a very strong defense — but that team ran into a couple of buzzsaws in Ohio State and Oregon that season.

The 2010 team and 2015 teams were also among the best in program history. Overall, this article is a good reminder of the incredible heights the Michigan State football program reached from 2010 through 2015 — and perhaps where the team is headed under Tucker.