Michigan State is currently ranked No. 2 in the country, but their statistical profile does not come close to justifying the faith that voters are placing in the team. The Spartans are 13th according to F/+ and SRS and 30th according to the Sagarin Predictor. They have outgained their opponents by a miniscule 0.08 yards per play.
Leaving No. 1 Ohio State aside, there are eight teams that are ahead of Michigan State in all three of the aforementioned advanced computer rankings. To demonstrate how much better these teams have been than Michigan State, take a look at their yards-per-play margins while keeping in mind that there is a strong correlation between yards-per-play margin and winning:
|Team||Yards Per Play Margin|
Michigan State's schedule is not going to be great this year for a variety of reasons. A team can overcome a weak schedule by annihilating the teams on it. For instance, Ohio State was near the top of the S&P+ ratings last year even before its three-game post-season run because the Bucks were outstanding on a per-play basis. As evidenced by the chart above, the Spartans aren't coming close to demonstrating dominance over middling opponents.
Central Michigan out gained Michigan State 340 to 324. Second straight week that a non Power 5 team has done that to the Spartans.— Ed Feng (@thepowerrank) September 29, 2015
So why are Michigan State's numbers so underwhelming? There are a couple factors. First, the Spartans are averaging a pedestrian 4.2 yards per rush, good for 82nd nationally. This is a drop of almost a full yard off of the Spartans' 5.15 yards per carry last year. To date, the team has not found an adequate replacement for Jeremy Langford.
Second, the vaunted Spartans defense is struggling. The pass defense is off to an abysmal start, ranking 87th in pass efficiency defense and 107th in yards per attempt allowed despite one game against an option-oriented team and a second against a quarterback with a broken finger. Michigan State is 125th in pass plays of 10-plus-yard allowed and 122nd in 20-plus-yard plays allowed.
The assumption before the season was that a Mark Dantonio defense would be good regardless of long-time defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's departure for the head coaching job at Pitt. Based on a sample size of four games, this may not be the case. There have been concerns about Ohio State's offense suffering after Tom Herman's exit (not unlike how Florida's offense regressed after Dan Mullen left for Mississippi State after the 2008 season), but the fretting might have been directed at the wrong Big Ten contender.
So what are voters seeing that is absent in all of the numbers? A few things. One is simple inertia. Michigan State was a top-10 team at the start of the season and it hasn't lost. A second is the assumption that the Spartans' win over Oregon was a significant accomplishment, which looks two weeks later like an erroneous conclusion. (Why the voters can't adjust their assumptions after Oregon was crushed by Utah is an open question.) And a third is that Michigan State has been excellent in the past two seasons and the sheen of those top-five finishes rubs off on this year's team.
The fact that Michigan State can turn in underwhelming performances and still command a top ranking is actually a sign of how far Dantonio has brought this program. Michigan State's reputation is now so good that the Spartans can be outgained by non-Power 5 opponents for the first third of the season and still get bumped up to No. 2 in the country.
Now, it bears mentioning that being overrated at the end of September is not a terminal diagnosis. Dantonio's teams tend to improve over the course of a season, so there's reason to think that the Spartans' weak running game and pass defense will be better in October and November. For instance, the 2013 team struggled on offense for the first half of the year before Connor Cook asserted himself at quarterback. That season ended with the Spartans beating undefeated Ohio State in Indianapolis and then Stanford in Pasadena.
Michigan State has aspects of a good team, starting with Cook, who is near the top of the Big Ten in passer rating. He's helped by a go-to receiver in Aaron Burbridge, an above-average tight end in Josiah Price, a veteran offensive line and one of the best defensive lines in the country, led by current star Shilique Calhoun and emerging star Malik McDowell. While the Spartans struggle to run the ball and stop opponents from passing, they throw the ball well and stop opponents from running.
And the schedule will provide assistance to Michigan State, at least for the next two weeks. The Spartans play Purdue and Rutgers, so they have some time to sort out their issues before they travel to Ann Arbor on October 17. The Michigan team that will oppose them is currently rated ahead of the Spartans according to both SRS and the Sagarin Predictor and has a yards-per-play margin of +2.07.