Sunday, September 20, 2020

Preview of Michigan State football's key games in conference-only schedule

August 6, 2020
<p>Spartan football team members celebrate during the game Nov. 30, 2019, at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans beat the Terrapins 19-16.</p>

Spartan football team members celebrate during the game Nov. 30, 2019, at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans beat the Terrapins 19-16.

Photo by Sylvia Jarrus | The State News

The Big Ten is attempting to piece together an altered college football season in the midst of a global pandemic, and for the first time, there is a plan in place.

If this season is indeed played, Michigan State will be entering a new era under head football coach Mel Tucker. After finishing 7-6 with a Pinstripe Bowl victory over Wake Forest, Michigan State will return most of its offensive line and their star sophomore running back Elijah Collins while trying to find its next quarterback and his weapons to throw to.

As for the defense, Michigan State will lose a majority of its starters including Kenny Willekes, Raequan Williams, Josiah Scott, Mike Panasiuk, and Joe Bachie all to the NFL via the draft and free agency.

With a lot of question marks for the Spartans and what the upcoming season will look like, we try to make sense of all of it and preview some of the key games for Michigan State in the planned Big Ten conference-only schedule.

Sept. 5 versus Minnesota

The Mel Tucker era at Michigan State begins against P.J. Fleck’s Golden Gophers, and it won’t be an easy one. Minnesota finished 11-2 last season for only their second double-digit win season since joining the Big Ten, and their first since 2003. After defeating Auburn in the Outback Bowl, the Gophers are a real contender to be crowned champions of the Big Ten West.

The Gophers lost five players to the NFL Draft this season including star safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and wide receiver Tyler Johnson. In addition, Minnesota lost a key part of their offense when projected first round pick Rashod Bateman opted out of the upcoming season to prepare for the NFL Draft amid COVID-19 concerns.

Regardless, this is a team with a lot of talent and is led by junior quarterback Tanner Morgan, who is arguably the second best quarterback in the Big Ten behind Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim is fresh off of a sophomore slump type of season after running over 1000 yards as a freshman, but looks to bounce back after a solid bowl game. Minnesota also ranked 37 in total defense last year and will look to continue that momentum.

This game will be an emotional one for both squads as MSU looks to begin a new era, and Minnesota will try to show the Big Ten that last season was not a fluke. 

A brutal three game stretch versus rivals

After starting the season against Minnesota, Maryland and Northwestern, Michigan State will take on Penn State in Beaver Stadium, Michigan at the Big House, and Ohio State in Spartan Stadium.

Yikes.

This is a Michigan State team who will be putting a football in their hands for the first time in the Mel Tucker era Aug. 7 after the COVID-19 pandemic put plans on hold. When they take the practice field, the Spartans will be looking to install new schemes and build a culture to right the wrongs that resulted in three losses against these powerhouses by a combined 106-27.

Penn State lost some major talent to the NFL Draft in guys like wide receiver  K.J. Hamler and defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, but head coach James Franklin recruits at a high enough level to reload each season. The Nittany Lions also return about 69% of their production from a year ago where they finished 11-2.

After being annihilated by the Wolverines in Ann Arbor last year, the Spartans will travel to Ann Arbor once again in this new schedule as the Big Ten tries to balance out home and away games for each team. However, Michigan ranks near the bottom in returning production according to ESPN, at 125 out of 130, around 43%.

Michigan is another school that reloads each season, but with a new quarterback in either Dylan McCaffery or Joe Milton set to take over, there are likely to be bumps along the way, especially since the offensive line had four NFL draft picks drafted this spring. Tucker has said multiple times he will make the Michigan game a focus, and it might be the most winnable of this three game stretch. As we saw in the matchup last fall, however, it will still be a big mountain to climb for the Spartans to defeat their rivals again.

Ohio State is … pretty good. 

Fields is a Heisman front runner and is surrounded by NFL talent all over the field. Barring a catastrophic collapse from the Buckeyes, they will run the table in the Big Ten.

Needless to say, the gap between Michigan State and these three schools is perhaps the largest since former head football coach Mark Dantonio took over the program in the early 2000s. To expect wins here would be ludicrous, no matter what angle you take this from.

What the Spartans can do though is show the level of toughness and grit they have to keep these games interesting and maybe even give one of these juggernauts a scare. While Tucker’s first year at Michigan State may be looked at as a “year zero” where no judgements can truly be made during one of the most unique seasons in history, Tucker can make a statement in these games just by closing the gap that was so evident last year.

The home stretch 

In the Spartans' final two games, they’ll face the Indiana Hoosiers in East Lansing and travel to Nebraska to wrap up the season. The conference schedule for the Spartans largely remained the same from the schedule that was put together prior to the pandemic. The only things that changed were the locations of the games against Indiana and Michigan, and the addition of the Nebraska matchup to wrap up the season.

The Spartans walked away with the Old Brass Spittoon last fall against the Hoosiers but not unscathed as Indiana was in the game until the final second until a scoop and score by Michael Dowell sealed the deal as time expired. 

Indiana returns the 11th most production in the FBS according to ESPN, including sophomore quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who torched Michigan State’s secondary for nearly 300 yards, three touchdowns and 33 completions. The Hoosiers, under Head Coach Tom Allen, are a rising program with a star quarterback and lots of returning talent surrounding him. If the season plays out, Indiana could potentially rise up in the Big Ten East and cause major fits for teams like Michigan and Penn State who are vying to finish behind Ohio State.

As for the final game against Nebraska, not much of the same can be said for the Cornhuskers. Although they return the second most production of offense in the country, this was an offense that struggled under a sophomore slump of a season from quarterback Adrian Martinez, who was receiving Heisman hype after a breakout freshman campaign. 

After a lackluster 5-7 season amid high expectations in year two under head coach Scott Frost, a lot is unknown about what direction the Cornhuskers are headed. On one side if the coin, with the majority of the offense returning and a dual threat quarterback that has potential to be productive, Nebraska can bounce back. On the other side of that coin is the Nebraska we saw last year. This could be a chance for the Spartans to end on a high note heading into what hopefully will be a more normal season.

That reason alone is why the final two games could be extremely important for the Spartans. When Michigan State defeated Minnesota to become bowl eligible in 2012, that “program win” turned into multiple Big Ten titles, a Rose Bowl, a Cotton Bowl and a College Football Playoff appearance.

Tucker has a long way to go with this roster and program before he can reach that level, but a strong finish or showing in their two final games could signal more things to come in future seasons that aren’t plagued by a pandemic.

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