Friday, November 27, 2020

Our predictions: Previewing the 8-game conference only slate for the Spartans

October 19, 2020
New head football coach Mel Tucker speaks at his introductory press conference at the Breslin Student Events Center on February 12, 2020.
New head football coach Mel Tucker speaks at his introductory press conference at the Breslin Student Events Center on February 12, 2020. —
Photo by Matt Zubik | The State News

When the Big Ten’s chancellors and presidents announced the official plans for an eight-game conference-only slate for the 2020 season, it brought the conference back into the College Football Playoff picture.

The Oct. 24 kickoff nears as Michigan State and the rest of the Big Ten prepares for their seasons. Protocols, testing and restrictions of no fans in place to provide a COVID-19 free environment have been established in order to ensure the season is completed.

That’s the plan, anyway. 

MSU will open their season on Oct. 24 with Rutgers at Spartan Stadium, the first game under new head coach Mel Tucker, who left Colorado for MSU last spring. 

His first season is unlike any before it. 

Here are The State News’ predictions from beat writers Brendan Gumbel and Joe Dandron for how year one under Tucker will play out.

Home vs Rutgers, Oct. 24, Noon kickoff 

Dandron: Rutgers has a new head coach in Greg Schiano, so does MSU. The playing field evens, right? Wrong. Schiano is back, the coach who once led Rutgers to some of its best football seasons in program history. The uncertainty at quarterback will hurt the Spartans despite playing a team that went 2-10 last season. Luckily for MSU — Elijah Collins exists — the Spartans will turn to the run early and often as returnee Connor Heyward and Collins have big games against a weak Rutgers front-seven that gave up the most rushing yards per game last season. MSU wins on a rainy opening Saturday: 21-13 MSU.

Gumbel: Rutgers has been a pushover since joining the Big Ten back in 2014, and this year should prove to be no different. Even as they turn to Greg Schiano to try and resurrect the program, it’s going to take a lot longer than one year. No matter who is under center for the Spartans, they should be able to make enough plays to get the job done, while their underrated defense makes life difficult for the Scarlet Knights. It may not look convincing, but Mel Tucker will start his career in East Lansing at 1-0: 17-6 MSU.

At Michigan, Oct. 31, Time TBD

Dandron: This game is on Halloween, at Michigan. Tucker’s first game vs Michigan in one of the most volatile rivalries in college sports history comes with no fans, talk about a break. Whoever is playing quarterback for the Spartans will see ghosts and not just because of the holiday, Michigan DE’s Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson are very, very good at making things hard on an offense. Albeit, Michigan has questions at quarterback too — with an unproven Joe Milton likely at the helm of the Wolverines offense following the opt-out of Dylan McCaffrey. Jayden Reed has a breakout game and fans will see the talent he possessed at Western Michigan, but the Spartans fall short. Michigan wins by a pair of scores: 31-17 Michigan.

Gumbel: The game everyone marks on their calendars takes place just two weeks into the season this year. This will be Tucker’s first real test, and it’s going to take more than the 17 points they put up the week prior to stay competitive. It’s another year where high expectations have been set for UofM coach Jim Harbaugh and his quarterback, Joe Milton. Milton has drawn comparisons to Cam Newton and, while he won’t quite live up to the former NFL MVP’s status in his second game, will be the best player on the field. The Spartans make it close in the first half, but the Wolverines ultimately pull away: 38-21 Michigan.

At Iowa, Nov. 7, Time TBD

Dandron: Iowa was strong down the stretch, a 23-19 win against a peaking Minnesota team late last year proved that. Nathan Stanley is gone and so is the continuity at quarterback the Hawkeyes were able to lean on for multiple seasons. Kirk Ferentz could be on his way out with allegations coming out this past summer, but that doesn’t seem likely until the end of the season. This game will be telling for how well the Spartans will fare the rest of the way, it would be a big road win against a team that only lost three times last season. If the Spartans can not turn it over and keep Iowa wideout Ihmir Smith-Marsette — he had 800 scrimmage yards and eight total touchdowns — in check, then one may think MSU has got a chance. Spartans win a close one, but it is only because of the Hawkeyes’ struggles: 17-15 MSU.

Gumbel: This game will go a long way in seeing how well Tucker can get his team to respond on the road after a tough loss. It wasn’t a great offseason for the Hawkeyes, losing starting quarterback Nate Stanley and dealing with allegations of racism and bullying within their program. Still, Iowa is the more talented team, and they will eventually wear down the Spartans in an uneventful game that will feature just one touchdown for MSU. Rocky Lombardi struggles, causing concern and instability at the quarterback position: 31-10 Iowa.

Home vs Indiana, Nov. 14, Time TBD

Dandron: Indiana was good last year, a big reason for that was an offensive success while Michael Penix Jr. played quarterback. His health can be a problem, but this team managed to score against some good teams last season on the way to a Gator Bowl loss to Tennessee. MSU struggles, just as they did last year in the homecoming game — specifically against the passing game with a group of young cornerbacks trying to battle with one of the conference’s most powerful offenses (potentially). And oh yeah, Whop Philyor still plays football for the Hoosiers, too. He torched MSU last season for 14-140-2 receiving, he’s a problem and MSU can’t solve it. It’s a shootout, but MSU can’t keep up at home: 41-20 Hoosiers.

Gumbel: The Spartans return home at 1-2 after two tough losses on the road to superior opponents. Michael Penix Jr. is an electric quarterback for the Hoosiers and their offense is capable of running the score up. IU takes an early 21-3 lead in the first half, and Lombardi gets benched after throwing two interceptions. Insert redshirt-freshman Payton Thorne, who can’t quite complete the comeback but looks good in the second half and makes the game close, leaving Spartan fans hopeful that they have their quarterback of the future: 31-24 Indiana.

At Maryland, Nov. 21, Time TBD

Dandron: Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa is a sophomore transfer, he’s projected to be the starter, or at least you would think he will be after the NCAA cleared him to play immediately in August. Maryland only won three games last season, which is telling of how good this team will be in 2020, but Mike Locksley could have something in Tagovailoa: especially when he’s throwing to leading returning receiver Dontay Demus Jr. The Spartans can expose this defense, but quarterback struggles will likely recurringly represent the offense of the Spartans — despite an uptempo and more open scheme run by new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson. Spartans lose due to a late turnover, Tagovailoa will get his first statement win: 33-27, Terrapins.

Gumbel: MSU travels to Maryland feeling rejuvenated after a big second half against Indiana. Thorne is officially named the starter, and finds WR Jayden Reed for a touchdown on the first possession of the game, just as the two did many times before in high school together at Naperville Central. The game becomes somewhat of a shootout as Maryland QB Taulia Tagovailoa, brother of Heisman runner-up and current Miami Dolphin Tua Tagovailoa, goes toe to toe with the Spartan offense. Shakur Brown picks off Tagovailoa to seal an exhilarating win for MSU, a much-needed morale booster as the short-season nears its conclusion: 38-35 Michigan State.

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Home vs Northwestern, Nov. 28, Time TBD

Dandron: Northwestern was a thorn in the side of the Spartans until last season when MSU likely had their best game of the year in a win that set the all-time wins record for former Head Coach Mark Dantonio. Northwestern had a lot of problems on offense last season and they potentially could get even worse: 16.3 points a game last season is a low standard. Northwestern did keep teams under 24 points a game last year, one of the better marks in the Big Ten, but regardless, this team struggles with Michigan State’s downfield passing attack, Jalen Nailor has a big game, Elijah Collins does the same and the tight ends breakout for MSU. Again, it’s still not certain who the Spartans will trot out at quarterback — although it seems more likely than not that Rocky Lombardi will start week one after he is the only quarterback with starting experience from last season. The passing game and offense get rolling for the Spartans, Northwestern loses in East Lansing: 28-10 MSU.

Gumbel: Former Clemson quarterback Hunter Johnson was unable to fully take over the starting job for Northwestern last season due to injury and poor performance. However, there is a new QB coming to Evanston this season in Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey. Last season for the Hoosiers, Ramsey threw for 2,454 passing yards and 13 touchdowns. He should give Pat Fitzgerald some much-needed quarterback stability and will be clicking on all cylinders come week six. It’s a cold and snowy day in East Lansing, causing the run game to be emphasized for both teams. Elijah Collins puts up his best game of the season, rushing for 142 yards and two touchdowns as the Spartans squeak out a close victory: 20-17 MSU.

Home vs Ohio State, Dec. 5, Time TBD

Dandron: The Ohio State Buckeyes looked unbeatable when the Spartans got trounced in Columbus last season. This Buckeye team is not the same on either side of the ball, the 2019 roster was one of the most talented in the school's history. But Justin Fields, Shaun Wade and others still remain. That spells danger for what is surely going to be a cold and snowy Saturday in East Lansing — reminiscent of the 2018 matchup that saw Ohio State's punter consistently give MSU fits when it comes to field position. Ohio State is also likely to be rolling at this point in the year, with a chance at the College Football Playoff surely riding on the final two games of the year for OSU, this one won't be close, even with the loss of J.K. Dobbins, transfer Trey Sermon runs wild and Shaun Wade gets two picks. Tucker will have gotten into a rhythm of some kind at this point of the year, but OSU is another level as a program right now: 51-20 Ohio State.

Gumbel: Justin Fields didn’t have to come back and play for Ohio State this season. He could have opted out and started preparing for the NFL Draft, where he is set to be a surefire top ten pick. Instead, he was one of the biggest advocates for the return of Big Ten football and has his eyes set on a national championship. The Buckeyes will be rolling heading into East Lansing, and they will have no plans of letting up against the Spartans. The game will serve as a wake-up call to Tucker, realizing just how much work he has in front of him to restore Michigan State football back to national prominence: 45-14 Ohio State.

Away vs Penn State, Dec. 12, Time TBD

Dandron: Some of the more memorable games in recent memory for Spartan fans have come against Penn State, the game-winning touchdown by Felton Davis III in Happy Valley and the previous year when a three-hour rain delay wore down Saquan Barkley enough for the Spartans to pull out a win on a field goal over a then top-10 Penn State team. This game goes a lot differently than those though, MSU struggles for a consecutive week and manages to keep it close with a second-half push. Penn State is another program that is in a different place from a recruiting standpoint — and it shows. Albeit a one-score game, Penn State pulls this one out at home. 20-13 Penn State.

Gumbel: After a disaster against the Buckeyes, MSU travels to Happy Valley to close out its season against Penn State. Sean Clifford is at year two under center for the Nittany Lions and James Franklin’s team will be in the running for the Big Ten Championship once again this season. MSU’s defense will surprise in this game, but Penn State has their eyes on Indy and won’t let this one slip away. The Spartans wrap up Tucker’s first season with a close loss and head into “Champion’s Week” at 3-5: 24-14 Penn State.

Final records

Dandron: 3-5, This MSU team has the potential for a better season by one win. But the schedule is tough, especially to close out the year and the Spartans will struggle with a lack of security at some important positions on defense and offense. Some players will shine: Jayden Reed, Antjuan Simmons and Noah Harvey are expected to be some of them — but Tucker and the staff at MSU may have some more work ahead of them. The trends from a recruiting standpoint show that the program recognizes that is where you can get to the level of competing for a spot in the Playoff.

Gumbel: 3-5, Even with a disappointing record, Spartan fans are left optimistic about the direction of the program under Tucker and his new staff. The season resulted in MSU finding a quarterback and a few diamonds in the rough emerging on both sides of the ball. 2021 will be a critical year for Tucker as he starts to incorporate his own guys into the program and there will be added pressure to win/compete against the top tier teams in the Big Ten. The biggest takeaway from 2020 is that Tucker is the right guy to lead Michigan State back to the promised land.

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