The Michigan State Spartans football team made its first appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl game during the 2021 season since the 2015 College Football Playoffs, defeating the Pittsburgh Panthers in the Peach Bowl.
On the heels of a breakout performance by running back Kenneth Walker III, MSU won all but two games (Ohio State and Purdue), and even defeated all three of its rivals (Michigan, Penn State and Indiana).
In head coach Mel Tucker’s third season, the Spartans have a lot to look forward to.
For one, wide receiver Jayden Reed is coming back for another season, stemming some of the talent lost by Jalen Nailor who declared for the NFL Draft. The chemistry is most notable since quarterback Payton Thorne will look to truly command MSU’s offense next season. Reed is that go-to target that could help Thorne achieve his goals, and the two of course have a long history together.
Preseason rankings are hardly accurate, making early rankings such as the one ESPN posted this week hardly more than clickbait. Still, it’s assuring to know that Michigan State has some high expectations heading into this next season.
In ESPN’s latest “Way-Too-Early” rankings, Michigan State is ranked No. 8 and is the second-highest Big Ten team on the list. Alabama takes the top spot, Ohio State follows at No. 2 and defending champion Georgia is ranked at No. 3. For those who are curious, Michigan is ranked No. 9.
Likely, the primary separation between both Michigan State and Michigan is Tucker’s use of the transfer portal. Michigan State has more incoming portal additions than Michigan does and has consistency returning on offense in Thorne and Reed, as well as some depth in its receiving corp. The Spartans need some help on defense, which defensive coordinator Scottie Hazleton and Tucker have worked on this spring.
Meanwhile, Michigan has a quarterback battle between soon-to-be sophomore J.J. McCarthy and senior Cade McNamara. Last season, Michigan opted for the carousel route, which worked against Ohio State, but might not work long-term. The Buckeyes were also worse defensively than usual. Instead of reloading, OSU took a temporary step backward. Oregon exploited that, so did Michigan.
Michigan State’s surprising 11-2 season made MSU one of the best teams to bet on in the 2021 season. I would expect the Spartans to be on the opposite end of that in 2022. MSU should continue to have high expectations for itself, but an eight-win or nine-win season shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a “step back” for the program. Now that more eyes are on Michigan State, the odds in Vegas should reflect that. Of course, Spartans fans would likely be disappointed with that result, though.
Tucker’s vision for Michigan State’s rebuild is also unprecedented. New transfer portal rules have allowed players, such as Walker, to make an immediate impact. It’s hard to say if any incoming portal player will be as impactful as Walker was, or even have a fraction of the impact.
Personally, I’m excited to see defensive additions such as linebacker Aaron Brule (Mississippi State), linebacker Jacoby Windmon (UNLV), defensive end Khris Bogle (Florida) and defensive back Ameer Speed (Georgia).
That’s why Michigan State still feels as though it could be a Big Ten wild card team. My personal early expectation for Michigan State is to lose against Ohio State and Michigan. Games against Wisconsin and Penn State could also turn sour, which is where MSU’s third or fourth loss is most likely.
If we look back on Michigan State’s 2021 season, coaching was the obvious problem for the Nittany Lions against the Spartans. Choosing to run the ball on critical downs when MSU had the worst pass defense in FBS was such a head-scratcher. That is a game I believe MSU should have lost, yet got away with.
Regardless of the prediction, the current trajectory for Michigan State’s football program would still rise with a four-loss season. These preseason rankings are hard to predict, but Wisconsin will be better, so will Penn State and Ohio State. It will be a tough test but we can’t actually be sure until September.