3. Your offense is a mess.
This has got to be the most inexperienced, least talented (on paper of course), and seemingly hopeless offense of the Mark Dantonio era. Highlighted by the departures of Connor Cook, Aaron Burbridge, and Jack Conklin, the Spartans lose an astonishing (when you consider their abysmal recruiting (again, on paper)) three former All-Americans and five All-Big Ten talents.
Replacing Cook and both All-American linemen will be nearly impossible, as the young Spartans turn to a ground-based attack paced by LJ Scott to navigate the early part of a rough 2016 schedule. Losing your top receiver, an All-American and top ten overall pick on the line, and possibly the greatest QB in school history is a Chernobyl-level disaster for the “Dean of Discipline” in East Lansing.
2. Your rivals are ascending rapidly.
I realize it’s hard to claim Ohio state is ascending after a 2014 national championship and a twelve win 2015, but their transformation into Alabama North is in full swing. Urban Meyer is skull fucking all of America on the recruiting trail on his way to what will probably be the highest regarded class in the history of college football. The Buckeyes, even after losing more NFL draft picks to the 2016 NFL draft than rival Michigan has had drafted since George W. Bush was in the Oval Office, are still the Big Ten media favorites.
Michigan, on the other hand, is in the midst of a warp speed rebuild in the hands of golden boy former QB Jim Harbaugh, who’s well on his way to making the Wolverines relevant again for the first time since most of us were in elementary school. Barring the most ridiculous play in the history of mankind last season, the Wolverines had MSU beat, even with Cook and a far less experienced Michigan in Harbaugh’s first season. Now, the Wolverines are somehow the most popular national championship bet, put a basketball player on their football jerseys (for some reason), signed one of the greatest classes in school history that included the nation’s number 1 overall player, and supposedly feature the nation’s best defense.
1. Your Secondary
I’d be willing to bet you can’t name a single person in Michigan State’s back four — unless you go to MSU, I suppose. What was formerly well on its way to becoming a miniature “DB U” has completely fallen off the wagon, with the 2015 Spartans finishing a very pedestrian middle of the Big Ten pack in defensive pass efficiency.
Things have not improved. Aside from returning starter Riley Bullough (wait, another one?), the Spartans feature inexperienced, low-rated “talent” on the back end that will have vertical passing offenses salivating. Michigan State will again, as always, feature a strong front seven, but has never been more vulnerable against the pass in an era in which their conference has never been more prolific through the air.
Reasons for hope
1. Dantonio & Co.
For all the shit the perpetually angry Spartan head man gets for his demeanor and apparent lack of personality, give me Mark Dantonio over ANYBODY in player development. MSU has recruited in the middle of the Big Ten pack according to most ranking services during his tenure, all while winning more conference games, and championships, than any team outside Columbus. With Dantonio, a two-star can become a blue chip prospect once he arrives on campus.
2. Front seven
Led by what might be the best defensive lineman in the nation in Malik McDowell, the “Spartan Dawgs” vacillate between borderline elite and downright unstoppable up front, with an experienced set of returning linebackers and legitimate NFL talent littering the line. MSU will be extremely difficult to run against while terrorizing opposing quarterbacks attempting to pray on their weak secondary.
Home field is more important in college football than in any other sport. Last season, a staggering 70+ percent of home teams won conference matchups, a striking discrepancy when compared to the NFL. This season, the Spartans get Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin at home, with their toughest conference road game likely at lowly Penn State. While an early trip to South Bend is a definite loss, the conference slate is extremely palatable for a team stranded in one of football’s toughest divisions.
The offense never finds its footing, but the stout defensive front keeps MSU in most games, aside from decisive losses to both OSU and Michigan. It’s a true testament to the job Dantonio has done in East Lansing that 8-4 is considered a “down year” for the Spartans, after the debacle that was the John L. Smith and Bobby Williams eras, stewing in the wake of Nick Saban’s abrupt departure. MSU is a team, however, at a crossroads with OSU and U of M primed to make the conference the Big Two and little 10 (now twelve) again..
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