EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State hasn’t lost five football games in row in 25 years, but that prospect faces the Spartans when they play at Maryland on Saturday night.
It was 10 months ago that Michigan State was playing in the College Football Playoff, fresh off of scrappy, hard-fought wins at then No. 2-ranked and undefeated Ohio State and against then-No. 4 and undefeated Iowa in the Big Ten championship game. The Spartans were overwhelmed and out-manned in a 38-0 loss in the national semifinals against eventual national champion Alabama, but they again had proven themselves worthy of being considered among the top programs in the country.
Fast forward to the present and now there is a legitimate question of: how foreboding was that loss? Did former Michigan State coach and now college football Grand Poobah Nick Saban give the Spartans such a beating that the entire program’s psyche, halfway through this season, still hasn’t recovered? Or, is this just one of those seasons in the normal cycle of a football team? Well, you know, at least teams not run by a Grand Poobah or a guy named Urban.
Was this something that could’ve have been foreseen?
A close look at the annual recruiting rankings suggests that maybe this season has been a few years in the making.
The following chart shows the rankings of Michigan State recruits in the Mark Dantonio era, according to 247Sports.com’s database that analyzes multiple recruiting sites and provides a composite ranking. It shows the national and Big Ten rankings of the overall class, as well the number of 5-star, 4-star and 3-star recruits. This year’s freshmen class is the highest ranked under Dantonio. Seven of those players have already played this season, a record number of freshmen to play for a Dantonio team at Michigan State.
|Year||National rank||Big Ten rank||Total recruits||5-star||4-star||3-star|
The last three seasons that provided two Big Ten championships and a 36-5 record that included victories in the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl were heavily influenced by the classes of 2009, 2010 and 2011.
- WR Bennie Fowler and DL Denicos Allen were a part of the 41-member 2009 class along with QB Andrew Maxwell and former captain Blake Treadwell.
- The 2010 class featured William Gholston, who was the first 5-star recruit Dantonio signed. LB Max Bullough, RBs Le’Veon Bell and Jeremy Langford, DBs Darqueze Dennard and Mylan Hicks, and P Mike Sadler all came in 2010. That class was ranked No. 21 nationally.
- The 2011 class might not have been thought of as highly at the time but it included QB Connor Cook, DB Trae Waynes, offensive linemen Donavon Clark and Jack Allen, and defensive linemen Shilique Calhoun and Joel Heath. Brandon Clemons and Ed Davis are two sixth-year players on this year’s team who were part of this class.
Rankings are subjective to whoever does them. Individually or as a full class, they aren’t an absolute indicator of how players will handle all that college football will challenge them with, but they can be a useful guide. A 5-star athlete isn’t guaranteed to become an All-American player but if you compile enough 5- and 4-star kids and add to your depth with 3-star athletes with the potential to develop, that’s where you get teams like Michigan State has had the last three seasons.
The classes from 2012 and 2013, which make up the majority of upperclassmen on this year’s team, have lacked the depth and development of those previous classes.
Injuries and other circumstances have factored into this season’s 2-4 start: junior LB Jon Reschke has played just 1 1/2 games and it is still unknown whether he’ll return from a severe ankle injury this season. Fifth-year senior linebacker and tri-captain Riley Bullough missed three games with an undisclosed injury. Clemons, who began the season as the starting right guard on offense, was switched to the defensive line to help with depth after redshirt freshman Raequan Williams was hurt.
The recruit classes of the last two years have been asked to contribute more than typical freshmen and sophomore classes under Dantonio. There have been seven freshmen from this year who have already played, some of them significantly. Donnie Corley is second on the team with 21 receptions and 310 yards. His 38-yard touchdown against Notre Dame when he stole the ball from defender Cole Luke in the end zone is arguably the play of the first half for the Spartans.
Justin Layne began the season playing wide receiver and made his debut at Indiana on Oct. 1 playing there. He was switched to cornerback and got his first start last week against Northwestern. He intercepted a pass and returned it for a 43-yard touchdown, but was also beaten for a 57-yard score when he misread a coverage he was supposed to be in.
Defensive linemen Auston Robertson and Josh King were the two highest-rated recruits in this year’s class, according to 247Sports.com, and they have gradually earned greater playing time.
There are always growing pains, however.
“The problem right now is sometimes our players aren’t playing fast,” Dantonio said this week. “I watched Josh King, who is going to be a phenomenal player. He comes off the edge in the game on Saturday. He’s just young. Comes off the edge, before he gets hit on a wham block, a block coming back from the tight end, he fixes his helmet in the middle of a play.
“Well, you can’t do that. That’s just a very small thing. But you have to be able to know what you’re doing, play fast, and execute whatever it is, whether it’s playing the deep ball, running a route, throwing a route or pass protection. Whatever it is, you’ve got to be able to do those things at a rapid rate and aggressively.”
Again, recruiting rankings are subjective but the last three classes are among the highest rated in the Dantonio era.
That should be a comfort to the Michigan State masses who already want to look to the future.