When a head coach gets hired in college football it is standard for fans and analysts to grade the hires on a yearly curve. For instance, significantly more is expected from a coach in his third season with a team than one in his first year. By then the coach has “his” guys on the field and the results indicate clear success or failure.
For some coaches, however, analysts talk about a “year zero,” giving coaches an extra year to get things in order. This is typically done for coaches taking over programs in bad situations. Coaches that inherit a depleted roster that lacks much high-level skill.
In Mel Tucker’s situation, things are even more complicated. Technically Tucker is entering his fourth year as head coach. If Michigan State were a healthy program coming off of the 5-7 season last year Tucker may well have been on the hot seat. But 2020 was anything but healthy for the Spartans.
It goes almost without saying that Tucker was given a year zero. The roster he got from the Mark Dantonio era was desolate. In addition to plummeting recruiting, Dantonio saw waves of transfers leaving the program in his final years.
Making matters worse, Tucker wasn’t hired as the head coach until mid-February, missing nearly the entire recruiting window. So forget getting at least his first class in place.
Then there was the Covid of it all.
The Spartans finished 2-5 in Tucker’s first year. Considering one of those wins was over Michigan, fans seemed to accept the poor results with the hope of things to come.
But the 2021 season and, specifically, Kenneth Walker III kind of put everything upside down. With the superstar running back, the Spartans had their best season since reaching the College Football Playoff in 2015. All of a sudden, even with the understanding that Walker was moving on to the NFL, it seemed the timeline had been sped up. Now fans hoped, if not expected, Tucker’s program to stay at a high level.
Removing the 2021 season from the equation, a 5-7 record in 2022 wouldn’t have been that much of a surprise. Maybe it still would have been a let down, but no one would be saying the program is in a downward spiral. Generously, Tucker would have been in only “Year 1” of the three year re-build, and at worse “Year 2.”
Tucker’s first recruiting class of any kind is entering its junior season this year. The first full season of recruits are only going to be sophomores. Rebuilding a program, which is what the Spartans needed, takes years to find success.
That brings fans to ask the natural question, what are the expectations heading into the 2023 season? Improvement from last year is a necessity, there is no doubt about that. So reaching a bowl game should be a minimum of what MSU fans look for. But beyond that, it’s still a tough outlook.
With one more season in the standard Big Ten divisions, the Spartans have games against Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State this year. Plus road games at Iowa and Minnesota. Oh, and the rematch against Washington and somehow still eligible Michael Penix Jr. at quarterback. That doesn’t leave much wiggle room when looking to get six wins.
This is not to say that Tucker can put out another year that looks like 2022. There was a clear lack of year-over-year improvement for the vast majority of the roster. A true sign of growth on the team will not only be improvement from returning starters, but seeing underclassman play meaningful and effective minutes. Additionally, the team will need to look considerably more discipline in just about every aspect of the game.
If things are on track, the young players will be taking over key positions as the year progresses. Fans will see the results not only of Tucker’s recruiting ability, but also his ability to coach them up. Because this depends on the results of 19 and 20 year olds, it may not always show up in wins and losses, so a critical eye will be needed.
Michigan State has had a top 25 recruiting class in each of the last two seasons, finishing top four in the Big Ten. For a still new head coach that is a strong start.
Tucker isn’t on the hot-seat this season, for a number of reasons that also includes the size of his contract. But that won’t stop a wave of national media speculating at the failures of Tucker after receiving the massive deal following the 2021 season. To put it bluntly, it may be a year for MSU fans to tune out many of the talking heads and focus on specific improvements.
It’s entirely possible that Tucker isn’t the guy for Michigan State in the long run. But there is no need to pretend that he was ever on a normal trajectory. When fans grade the head coach, it’s important to take in the entire picture.