Best-case scenario: 4 factors that could help Michigan State enjoy a special season
The proverbial dog days of summer can be long and tedious for college football fans.
But each passing day brings us closer to the launch of the 2016 season, which for the Big Ten, includes one high-profile clash (Wisconsin vs. LSU at iconic Lambeau Field), one ambitious West Coast trip (Rutgers at Washington) and then a number of easy-to-navigate opponents for the first weekend (Sept. 1-3).
In the coming weeks, Land Of 10 will offer a “Best-Case Scenario” piece for the Big Ten’s presumed cluster of bowl-bound clubs. Today’s breakdown focuses on Michigan State, a program that has posted five seasons of 11-plus victories and claimed two Big Ten titles since 2010.
Here are four factors that will matter for the Spartans in 2016:
1. Presumed starting QB Tyler O’Connor justifies his lofty status from the 2012 recruiting rankings, one pass at a time
Nate Sudfeld. C.J. Beathard. Mitch Leidner. Sean Maguire. Paxton Lynch.
Four long years ago, O’Connor was viewed as a better or higher-upside prospect than the above five names (source: 247 Sports), all of whom would experience modest-to-superb levels of success at their respective colleges (Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Florida State, Memphis).
Lynch actually ranked 80th among the Class of 2012’s lot of pro-style QBs and still wound up passing for 8,865 yards and 59 touchdowns for Memphis in just three short seasons before becoming a first-round pick with the world champion Denver Broncos.
The easy lesson here: Recruiting has always been an inexact science. Look no further Cal recruit Zach Kline (No. 2-ranked passer from 2012) and his 82 career passes. Or Wisconsin recruit Bart Houston (No. 7-ranked QB) and his 51 combined attempts.
These guys were highly decorated coming out of high school, but neither one could rise above the stiff competition awaiting them at the college level — with Kline ceding the starting spot to Jared Goff (the NFL’s most recent No. 1 overall pick) and Houston lagging behind Badgers starter Joel Stave for three seasons (with the occasional contribution from Tanner McEvoy).
A similar fate applied to O’Connor, the 13th-ranked pro-style passer from 2012. Yes, he rated higher than Connor Cook (31st-ranked passer from 2011) entering college. But none of that mattered when the Spartans were hungry for a franchise passer and conducted open auditions for that spot throughout the non-conference portion of the 2013 schedule.
And after a few encouraging outings against Western Michigan, South Florida and Notre Dame, Cook was finally ready for a full-time baton handoff as the starter. Thirty-nine starts later, he would receive credit for 34 victories, 9,194 yards passing, 74 total touchdowns (71 passing), two Big Ten titles and three straight wins over Michigan.
The hard lesson here: It’s imperative for O’Connor — who guided Michigan State to its game-winning drive against Ohio State last year after Cook was injured— to avoid the temptation of trying to shoehorn three or four seasons of potential Big Ten stats into one senior campaign. Self-awareness will be a big component to the Ohio native’s one-year growth curve as the presumed starter.
After all, if O’Connor should desire some real-world examples of his current situation, simply look at vaunted Alabama, which started two senior quarterbacks — as first-year starters — for 2014 and 2015 (Blake Sims, Jacob Coker).
Or, how about Trevor Knight, the No. 8-ranked passer from the Class of 2012?
As a freshman, Knight tossed four touchdowns in Oklahoma’s Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama. As a sophomore, the Texas native became a social-media star for simply being the object of pop-music princess Katy Perry’s affection. As a junior, Knight then lost his job to Baker Mayfield, a burgeoning Heisman Trophy contender for the upcoming season.
So, how did Knight respond? He stealthily transferred to Texas A&M and quickly became the Aggies’ starter for 2016; and now, Knight’s a candidate for 3,500 yards passing/25 TDs once again … given the built-in presence of the nation’s best receiving duo (Christian Kirk, Josh Reynolds).
2. Vayante Copeland’s return makes the Spartans’ secondary whole again
Michigan State’s 2013 secondary featured two eventual first-round picks (cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard, Trae Waynes) and two highly productive safeties (Kurtis Drummond, Isaiah Lewis). As luck would have it, the Spartans also had the nation’s No. 3 scoring defense that season (allowing 13.2 points per game).
Fast forward three years: Assuming sophomore Vayante Copeland – who missed 12 games to injury last year – returns to full health, would it be a stretch to say the Spartans’ 2016 secondary (Copeland, Darian Hicks at cornerback; Montae Nicholson, Demetrious Cox at safety) has the potential to match the 2013 group — both with on-field production and NFL upside?
It’s a bold statement to make, but one that’s not out of whack for the coming season. Does Michigan State’s secondary feature commensurate star power to Michigan (Jabrill Peppers, Jourdain Lewis, Delano Hill) or Iowa (Thorpe Award winner Desmond King, Miles Taylor, Greg Mabin)? At this point, perhaps not.
However, the group’s collective talent, as complementary pieces with tangible upside, should help the Spartans crack the top 20 in scoring defense. It will also free up Michigan State’s cadre of ball-hawking linebackers (Ed Davis, Riley Bullough, Andrew Dowell) to rush the passer with enhanced hubris, working alongside All-Big Ten performer Malik McDowell, perhaps the first defensive tackle taken in the 2017 NFL Draft.
That extra half-second of pursuit time could yield major dividends.
3. Tailback LJ Scott’s yardage prowess catches up with his Toucan Sam-like nose for the end zone
In the Mark Dantonio coaching era, where he is 87-33 since 2007, Michigan State’s primary rushers have shown the greatest statistical improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 — a list which includes Edwin Baker (1,223 total yards, 13 TDs in 2010), Le’Veon Bell (1,215 total yards, 13 TDs as a sophomore) and Jeremy Langford (1,579 total yards, 19 TDs in 2013).
If that pattern repeats itself with Scott, Michigan State could have a 1,300-yard rusher on its hands. As a freshman, Scott tallied 714 total yards and 11 touchdowns, including the go-ahead score in the Big Ten championship.
Scott (4.8 yards per carry) only collected one 100-yard effort last year (vs. Purdue), but he also had four different games of multiple TDs — a staple of the Bell and Langford eras.
4. The Spartans might be home free in the East, if they split with Michigan and Ohio State
There’s much to like and loathe about Michigan State’s schedule:
- MSU probably has the Big Ten’s easiest road slate this fall, with eminently winnable trips to Indiana (Oct. 1), Maryland (Oct. 22), Illinois (Nov. 5) and Penn State (Nov. 26). That’s not to say the Spartans shall be immune from defeat on all four fronts, it just means they’ll be operating under the presumption of victory each time.
- Michigan (Oct. 29) and Ohio State (Nov. 19) both come to East Lansing. As part of that, Michigan State encounters Maryland and Rutgers, respectively, leading up to facing the Wolverines and Buckeyes.
- Even with the heavy turnover on offense, Michigan State likely won’t be a Vegas underdog for consecutive games this fall … which brings us back to one of college football’s time-tested revelations: It’s not who you play, but when you play ’em.
- As a consequence of Alabama pulling out of a 2016-17 home-and-home series three years ago, Michigan State’s athletic office had to remake the 2016 schedule on the fly. As a result, the Spartans have their one and only bye in Week 2 — after a likely romp of Furman in the opener. In other words, MSU will suit up over 11 consecutive Saturdays from Sept. 17 to Nov. 26 — or 12 straight Saturdays, if the Spartans reach the Big Ten title game.
- The BYU and Northwestern outings scream TRAP for the Spartans: On the BYU front, it’ll be weird for Michigan State to encounter a non-conference opponent so late in the schedule, once again thanks to Alabama’s undoing). On the Northwestern side, MSU will have to quickly rebuild a defensive front which ranked 11th in rushing defense last season. Plus, the Spartans have never faced Wildcats tailback Justin Jackson (2,968 total yards, 16 TDs), a legitimate threat for 1,700 yards rushing this fall. (For Michigan State fans, that comment may elicit flashbacks to former Northwestern tailback Damien Anderson shredding the MSU defense for 219 rushing yards and two TDs in 2000, while leading the Wildcats to a 20-point road rout.)
If Michigan State can negotiate these workable land mines, the Big Ten title/College Football Playoff fates will likely hinge on the result of the Michigan and Ohio State clashes.
The math breaks down like this:
Two wins should yield a Big Ten East title.
A split sounds damaging at first … until realizing the Buckeyes travel to Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State, and the Wolverines have three daunting trips to Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State in a five-week span.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.