Of course, not many people predicted that Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III would explode into Heisman Trophy candidacy (despite not being a finalist) or win the Walter Camp Player of the Year and Doak Walker awards, as he did in 2021.
Earlier this month, the Michigan State Spartans’ official, revised 2022 football schedule was released. At first glance, a few things stand out: MSU gets Ohio State at home, plays Michigan in Ann Arbor, and its non-divisional opponents are Minnesota (home), Wisconsin (home) and Illinois (road).
The 2021 Michigan State team was a surprise to many. Despite having a rough secondary that allowed the most passing yards per game in the country and lacking depth in key areas, head coach Mel Tucker led the Spartans to an 11-2 record and a Peach Bowl victory over Pittsburgh. MSU was one of the best team in the country against the spread last season, and will likely regress in that metric in 2022.
The Spartans will be losing key players such as Walker, wide receiver Jalen Nailor and others, though it helps that wide receiver Jayden Reed is returning. If quarterback Payton Thorne continues his upward trajectory and has a big season, he could carry Michigan State to some big victories.
Michigan State’s non-conference games
The Spartans’ non-conference games this season include one Power Five matchup, which is at Washington in Seattle. MSU will play Washington at home the following season in 2023. In the first two weeks, Michigan State hosts both Western Michigan and Akron, two Mid-American Conference (MAC) opponents.
Michigan State’s games against Western Michigan and Akron should be relatively easy and, with few mistakes, should result in a win. Washington is a team that can be tough some years, but there’s nothing to assume that will be the case next season. First-year head coach Kalen DeBoer will be at the helm for the Huskies, who has a career 79-9 record as head coach at both Fresno State and Sioux Falls. He’ll be looking to get Washington back on track.
I expect Michigan State to be undefeated in non-conference games next season (3-0).
Michigan State’s first big test: Ohio State
In Week Six, Michigan State faces Big Ten rival Ohio State. For MSU’s sake, let’s hope the result is nothing like the 2021 loss, that ended in a final score of 56-7.
Ohio State will certainly be a better team, as quarterback C.J. Stroud will have more experience. Head coach Ryan Day will also likely have a better defensive strategy than he deployed last season. So it would be foolish to assume that the Spartans have any chance at winning this one.
It will measure up Michigan State against a top-tier opponent, however. It’s unclear as to how well Mel Tucker will have MSU prepared for the game, but I would not be expecting any flashes of success. Expect this one to be a loss.
Final record and standings placement
For chaos’ sake, it’s tough to assume that Michigan State will beat in-state rival Michigan again. Even after Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh was able to defeat Ohio State, something he’s been unable to do for six years, his teams need to stop losing to MSU.
Harbaugh is 3-4 against Michigan State since taking over the Michigan program and is 1-5 against Ohio State. If I were a Michigan fan, I would take a loss against Michigan State as being worse than losing to the Buckeyes again.
The best record I can predict in Mel Tucker’s third season is either 8-4 or 9-3. The Spartans could easily lose to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan. This scenario would not be favorable since it requires MSU to lose three-straight games. There’s also the possibility of losing a fourth game against Penn State, but I wouldn’t do any betting in favor of the Nittany Lions next season. Of course, the Spartans could also drop another game the team is expected to win, or MSU could win a game it is expected to lose.
Wisconsin will be a tough matchup because of the Badgers’ inconsistencies. In 2021, the Badgers had a disappointing finish after getting back into the Associated Press top-25 poll. After a 23-13 loss to Minnesota, Wisconsin never made another poll again and ended up winning the Las Vegas Bowl against Arizona State.
That said, expect Wisconsin to have a better season, as is usual for the Badgers. If Michigan State were to win, it helps that the game is being played in East Lansing, rather than the hostile Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
I was disappointed with Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne’s overall performance in the Peach Bowl against Pittsburgh. In the first three quarters, he was virtually non-existent. But he was able to lead MSU in a fourth-quarter comeback, down 21-10. The Spartans ended up winning 31-21.
Thorne’s development in his redshirt junior season will be fundamental to Michigan State’s success next season. His ability to convert on big-time throws, as he did often, was key to the Spartans getting to 11 wins.
Against Michigan, on a fourth-down play, Thorne threw a dime to Reed near the pylon to convert and eventually score a touchdown against Michigan. MSU also had two separate two-point conversions in that game, on drives led by Thorne. Or, how about the play against Penn State in the regular season finale on fourth-down-and-15 where Thorne found Reed for a crucial 20-yard touchdown pass?
Thorne has the potential and ability to be an NFL quarterback, and it’s up to him to rise to that level in 2022 and beyond. Can he do it? I hope so. I’m not betting against him.