Friday, February 3, 2023

COLUMN: MSU's 5-7 season a sobering reminder of just how hard it is to win in college football

November 27, 2022
<p>Michigan State head football coach Mel Tucker at the Spartans&#x27; game against Iowa on Nov. 7, 2020. Photo Courtesy of MSU Athletic Communications.</p>

Michigan State head football coach Mel Tucker at the Spartans' game against Iowa on Nov. 7, 2020. Photo Courtesy of MSU Athletic Communications.

There isn’t much for Michigan State’s fanbase to be happy about after a 35-16 loss at the hands of Penn State to wrap up a 5-7 season.

But roughly one year ago, the vibes in East Lansing were immaculate. 

In just his second year with the program, Head Coach Mel Tucker had his program at 10 regular season wins, including a signature win over a Michigan team that wound up in the College Football Playoff. His poor first-year showing could be excused considering the timing of his hiring, COVID-19 and the state of MSU’s roster when he took over. 

Tucker and the Spartans capped off the Cinderella season with a New Year’s Six win, defeating Pitt 31-21 in the Peach Bowl. 

Then, in the offseason, Tucker continued to build hype around the program with a good recruiting class ranked 23rd in the nation according to 247 Sports. 

This year, Michigan State and its fans were brought crashing back down to earth. The atmosphere isn’t quite as jovial as it was 12 months ago. 

Pegged as a top-25 team heading into the year, the Spartans didn’t just have a few tough losses here and there; they completely collapsed. The limp to a 5-7 record was highlighted by a few blowout losses (including one to Minnesota in Spartan Stadium), a blown lead against the lowly Indiana Hoosiers, a 29-7 loss to the Wolverines and, of course, the controversy in the Michigan player’s tunnel (and subsequent suspension of eight players). 

In short, the 2022 season was an abject failure.

Sure, there are some valid excuses for Tucker and his coaching staff. Near the top of that laundry list of excuses is the massive amount of injuries that occurred throughout the roster.  

At the beginning of the season, Michigan State lost a few key defenders right off the bat. Junior linebacker Darius Snow suffered a season-ending injury, redshirt senior defensive tackle Jacob Slade was out for a handful of games and fifth-year senior safety Xavier Henderson also missed a stretch. 

Henderson’s absence was almost certainly the most glaring loss. In his absence, Michigan State’s secondary was one of the worst in the nation, picked apart by the likes of Washington and Minnesota. The unit improved almost immediately upon his return. 

Then, around the halfway point of the season, as players like Henderson and Slade finally made their returns, MSU just kept losing other players. Senior defensive end Khris Bogle and junior defensive end Jeff Pietrowski Jr. missed multiple weeks to end the season. The secondary suffered even more casualties. 

More recently, the offensive line suffered its fair share of attrition, losing starting sixth-year senior offensive guard Matt Carrick and starting fifth-year offensive tackle Jarrett Horst

In addition to those injuries, Michigan State suspended eight additional players after the attacks in the Michigan tunnel. All of the suspended Spartans played defense. 

One of those eight players was star senior linebacker/defensive end Jacoby Windmon. The UNLV transfer was perhaps the most talented player on the roster, so it’s no shock that his absence came as a blow. 

The roster was so thin by the end of the season, MSU wasn’t even putting on pads and hitting in practice in the final three weeks. There just weren’t enough bodies to risk a mid-week injury. 

Of course, this was already a roster that wasn’t especially robust heading into the season, still partially affected by the mediocre recruiting of Mark Dantonio in his twilight years. 

Those circumstances certainly help explain why the season was egregiously bad for Michigan State. But boosters, pundits, fans and most importantly, recruits, don’t have time for excuses. 

Difficult circumstances are always going to arise in college football. Michigan State wasn’t the only team racked by injuries this year. Great teams — teams consistently at the top of the recruiting rankings and the AP Poll — can overcome that sort of adversity. 

This season just proved that creating an elite winning culture in college football doesn’t happen overnight. Michigan State is just not close to that level yet. 

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Sure, things like name, image and likeness (NIL) and the transfer portal can accelerate certain aspects of the rebuild. Tucker has excelled with both. Last year, Kenneth Walker III's Heisman-worthy season was a driving factor in Michigan State’s success. This season, Tucker seemed to have found another gem in Windmon (although his suspension obviously ended that addition to the roster prematurely). 

But this year’s collapse proved that these new pieces of the game are just not enough to turn around a program. Not immediately, at least.

The aforementioned improvement in recruiting last offseason will start to address this, but in a conference like the Big Ten, an above-average class won’t cut it against the likes of Ohio State and Michigan. Michigan State has a long, long way to go to reach those heights. 

Michigan State fans shouldn’t give up on Tucker just yet. Expectations should certainly be high for his tenure — when you make nearly $10 million a year, fans expect your team to be fighting for more than bowl eligibility in the final game of the season. 

However, you don’t turn a program into a powerhouse overnight. Let’s not forget that Dantonio went 6-7 in his third season with Michigan State. Dabo Swinney also went 6-7 in his third year at Clemson. 

Now, I’m not saying that Tucker will end up being as great as either of those coaches. I’m just saying that fans need to remember that these things take time. Just think back to how you felt after the 2018 Red Box Bowl against Oregon, or the horrific collapse to Illinois in 2019. Dantonio didn’t exactly make things easy for the next coach assuming the helm at Michigan State. 

Tucker has still shown flashes of those coaching chops he flexed in 2021. Considering the circumstances (just a week after the tunnel incident) and just how thin the roster was, MSU’s win at Illinois was an essential win to illustrate that Tucker can still pull his squad together for a victory. 

And all things considered, the recruiting has still been pretty solid. There is still plenty to like about what Tucker is doing for the program.

It’s too early to say exactly how the Mel Tucker Era will turn out at Michigan State. But, one thing is certain. The 2022 season was a sobering reminder of just how hard it is to win in college football.

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