Two years ago, there weren’t many bets more certain that Michigan State. The Spartans were going to play good defense, punish you on the ground, make big plays in the passing game and make a push for a conference title. That trajectory put Michigan State in the College Football Playoff in 2015, but it all came crashing down during a 3-9 season that included some off-the-field ugliness that is still reverberating in East Lansing. And those echoes all seem to be saying, “Now where does this program go?”
The Spartans had to replace some big-time talent on offense last season, but Michigan State’s numbers held pretty steady despite just three starters back in 2016. It ranked fourth in the Big Ten in adjusted total yards per play and the explosiveness didn’t fall off a cliff. Can the Spartans pull the same trick with just four starters back in 2017? Running back LJ Scott should be tough to handle in the running game, but there are plenty of questions to answer in the passing game. Brian Lewerke steps in at quarterback and the new quarterback will need some new targets with the Spartans’ top-four receivers gone, including the offseason dismissal of Donnie Corley, who averaged 13.7 yards per catch as a freshman.
During its run to two Big Ten titles, Michigan State was a nightmare to throw against. A dominant pass-rush combined with a secondary that always seemed to be stocked with NFL talent kept most teams in check. That, like some other things, collapsed to an almost alarming degree in 2016. The Spartans allowed 7.07 adjusted yards per pass last season, last in the Big Ten. Any improvement on defense this season has to start there. The secondary doesn’t have the household names fans have become used to in recent years, but there’s talent there. The bigger question is up front. Michigan State also ranked last in the Big Ten in sacks with 11, which was 10 fewer than the second-worst teams, Purdue and Rutgers, had. The Spartans return just one full-time starter on the defensive line, which, depending upon your perspective on last year’s numbers, could be either a good thing or a bad thing.
The Spartans’ nonconference slate should offer an early indication of how this program has handled itself since last year’s detour through the depths of the Big Ten. There should be enough residual boat rowing going on at Western Michigan for that to be a tough game and, two weeks later, there’s a visit from Notre Dame, which seems to be show no ill effects from last year’s 4-8 record in the early projections. The Big Ten schedule takes Michigan State to Ohio State and Michigan, and also includes cross-division games against a solid group of Northwestern, Minnesota and Iowa. It’s not murder but it ain’t easy either.
Seems kind of obvious, no? Michigan State’s still probably trending DOWN at this point based on what we can claim to know about the program right now. And if that transpires, it’s going to dredge up some tough questions. Should the Spartans have done more on the recruiting trail when times were good? How unassailable is Mark Dantonio, one of the best coaches in program history? It wouldn’t be a shock to see this group steer into the skid and finish something like 5-7, but it’s unclear if even that sort of year-to-year gain would be enough to hold those queries at bay.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.