Check out the advanced-stats glossary here. Below, a unique review of last year's team, a unit-by-unit breakdown of this year's roster, the full 2016 schedule with win projections for each game, and more.
1. Quite a "legacy"
Mark Dantonio has pretty much ruined it for all other coaches taking on rebuilding jobs. Rebuilding is a difficult thing. But while there have been setbacks in Dantonio's seven years, they have been minimal and easy to explain. Dantonio's tenure has been as smooth and forward-moving as you'll ever see.
I began last season's Michigan State preview with this quote, and with good reason. What he had done in so seamlessly building a power in East Lansing had been stunning. I should have stopped there.
We'll call this a legacy season, likely one without any newfound achievements but one that further burnishes the résumé. Win another 10-plus games, go to another big bowl and hope Ohio State loses enough talent after the season that you can strike again
Technically, beating the defending national champion on the road and reaching the College Football Playoff does have an impact on your legacy. But that wasn't quite what I had in mind for Dantonio and his Spartans.
Between 1956 and 2012, a span of 57 seasons, Michigan State finished sixth or better in the polls three times. From 1966 to 2012, the Spartans didn't do it at all. They've now done it for three straight seasons.
They've done it despite turnover. They've done it with good luck and bad luck, and despite Urban Meyer's overbearing presence in Columbus (and now Jim Harbaugh's in Ann Arbor), they have won two of the last three Big Ten titles. They have won two of three against Ohio State, seven of eight against Michigan, three in a row against Penn State and two of three against Nebraska.
Dantonio has built his program so thoroughly, so sturdily, that it's hard to see Sparty falling too far off-course for a while. Sure, there may be a down season here or there (and this year could be one of them), but what does "down" mean for a team that has won at least 11 games in five of the last six seasons?
In theory, 2016 could be the "legacy season" I thought last year would be, a year in which the Spartans take a step backwards but remain a step ahead of most of the conference. There are few too many questions to ask – quarterback, receiving corps, offensive line, defensive line, cornerback, special teams – and while State will almost certainly provide satisfactory answers for some of them, answer all of them will be tricky.
Still ... there's a chance they answer them all. You know it, I know it and Mark Dantonio knows it. And considering the Big Ten landscape – Ohio State is replacing even more than Michigan State, Michigan hasn't yet proven it has full-season staying power, and no one in the West is likely to play at a top-15 level – the Spartans will remain a Big Ten contender.
To reiterate, getting both Michigan and Ohio State at home is definitely worth mentioning.
|Record: 12-2 | Adj. Record: 13-1 | Final F/+ Rk: 9 | Final S&P+ Rk: 13|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|4-Sep||at Western Michigan||51||37-24||W||97%||100%||-1.2||-4.0|
|21-Nov||at Ohio State||3||17-14||W||87%||64%||+17.3||+16.0|
|Points Per Game||29.8||60||21.7||25|
2. Peaking in November
Sometimes a loss can be just what the doctor ordered. For a Dantonio team, that is typically the case. The Spartans haven't lost back-to-back games since 2012, and they have responded with vigor after each loss in that span. In 2013, they lost 17-13 to Notre Dame and responded with a 12-point win against a solid Iowa team on the road. They didn't lose again until the following September (Oregon 46, MSU 27) and responded to that one by winning their next six games by an average of 49-18. They lost to Ohio State in a wild affair, then finished the season by beating three straight bowl teams by an average of 39-9.
The way they were playing heading into this past November, it almost seemed like they needed a loss to get their affairs in order. After a sturdy start to the season, the Spartans hit a rough patch, barely surviving 2-10 Purdue (24-21) and 4-8 Rutgers (31-24). They beat Michigan in the luckiest of fashions and eventually pulled away from Indiana, but their form had fallen off a bit.
Then they lost to Nebraska. And all was well again. Even with quarterback Connor Cook dealing with an injury, Sparty was spectacular down the stretch.
- First 4 games:
Record: 4-0 | Average percentile performance: 89% (~top 15) | Yards per play: MSU 5.7, Opp 5.7 | Average performance vs. S&P+: -4.1 PPG
- Next 5 games:
Record: 4-1 | Average percentile performance: 69% (~top 40) | Yards per play: MSU 6.0, Opp 5.7 | Average performance vs. S&P+: +0.7 PPG
- Next 4 games:
Record: 4-0 | Average percentile performance: 89% (~top 15) | Yards per play: MSU 4.8, Opp 4.6 | Average performance vs. S&P+: +12.3 PPG
It is certainly worth noting that Michigan State dodged some bullets lst year. On average interceptions make up about 22 percent of overall passes defensed (INTs + breakups); Michigan State's defense reeled in about 25 percent while opponents held onto only 11 percent.
Going by national averages, Michigan State should have intercepted about 13 passes, and its opponents should have managed 16. The real INT numbers: MSU 15, opponents eight.
That's a 10-interception net, which contributed to turnovers luck of about plus-4.5 points per game for the Spartans. Only Oklahoma State (plus-6.6), Bowling Green (plus-5.7), and Houston (plus-5.0) were higher, and in a season in which you go 6-1 in games decided by one possession, obviously that can play a huge role.
Taking this into account, MSU was only a top-15 team per S&P+, not top-five. (The as-yet-unmentioned blowout loss to Alabama in the Playoff semis obviously played a role in this lower rating, too.) And maybe the breaks are what converted this from "legacy season" to CFP run. But the level the Spartans achieved for two-thirds of the season was as high as almost anyone's. That's obviously a good sign moving forward.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||42.4%||60||Succ. Rt. +||114.1||19|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||27.6||25||Def. FP+||25.4||7|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||4.7||50||Redzone S&P+||118.3||13|
|Q1 Rk||75||1st Down Rk||85|
|Q2 Rk||70||2nd Down Rk||109|
|Q3 Rk||41||3rd Down Rk||68|
Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Tyler O'Connor||6'3, 225||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8820||13||24||133||2||1||54.2%||2||7.7%||4.8|
|Damion Terry||6'3, 238||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9177||2||7||15||0||0||28.6%||1||12.5%||0.4|
|Brian Lewerke||6'3, 200||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8779|
|Messiah deWeaver||6'4, 212||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9062|
3. Passing downs success is often tied to the QB
Michigan State's offense really shouldn't have worked in 2015. The Spartans were run-heavy on running downs and pass-heavy on passing downs, and relative lack of success in the former resulted in plenty of the latter. Big plays were at a minimum -- they managed just 16 gains of 30-plus yards all season, 118th in the country (despite playing a 14th game) -- which meant that just about any scoring drive was going to require at least one third-and-8 completion.
Still, the efficiency was there. For the most part, that was enough. The ground game produced very few double-digit gains but was good at picking up four or five yards on first down. And when it didn't, Cook was around to do the rest. On third-and-7 or more, Cook was an astounding 45-for-79 for 766 yards, six touchdowns, and just one interception last year; passer rating: 160.9. That's not supposed to happen. (And judging by the INT-to-PBU ratio mentioned above, it probably wouldn't happen twice.)
It probably won't happen in 2016. That's probably a little bit too much to ask of a new starter.
Then again, the likely new starter, senior Tyler O'Connor, certainly stepped up when he had the chance last year. On third-and-7 or more, he is 10-for-16 for 162 yards in his career, and while he was asked to do very little in Cook's November absence last year, he did still go 7-for-12 with a 148.1 passer rating at Ohio State in adverse weather conditions.
There's still that junior Damion Terry (who also saw snaps against OSU) or redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke could take O'Connor down during fall camp, but that appears unlikely. O'Connor has patiently waited his turn, and in minimal opportunities, he has passed his tests. And if he can provide at least a little bit of passing downs magic, the Sparty offense could click.
|LJ Scott||RB||6'0, 238||So.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9710||147||699||11||4.8||4.9||33.3%||3||1|
|Madre London||RB||6'1, 220||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8731||119||500||3||4.2||4.6||31.9%||0||0|
|Gerald Holmes||RB||6'0, 220||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8568||110||540||8||4.9||3.8||41.8%||0||0|
|Delton Williams||FB||6'1, 230||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8682||26||56||1||2.2||0.9||23.1%||0||0|
|R.J. Shelton||WR||5'11, 205||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8609||24||127||0||5.3||4.4||45.8%||3||1|
|Damion Terry||QB||6'3, 238||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9177||20||80||0||4.0||3.3||35.0%||1||1|
|Tyler O'Connor||QB||6'3, 225||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8820||12||56||0||4.7||1.8||50.0%||1||0|
|Macgarrett Kings Jr.||WR||4||15||0||3.8||1.0||50.0%||1||1|
|Matt Sokol||FB||6'5, 250||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8600|
4. Wanted: Big plays
Even if O'Connor is solid on passing downs, you still don't want to go to that well too often. And if you're not producing big plays, that means you have to execute well for eight to 10 plays at a time to put points on the board. MSU should again be efficient, but that's still a lot to ask.
To the extent that MSU produced big plays last year, a lot of them came from Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings Jr., who combined to average 14.2 yards per catch. They're both gone, while most of last year's efficiency/possession options return. Of Cook's four primary options, senior R.J. Shelton had the highest success rate of the bunch, and he and tight ends Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles should give O'Connor (or whoever) some nice security-blanket options. Still, the occasional 30-yarder would be great.
Meanwhile, last year's names are this year's names in the run game. Current sophomores LJ Scott and Madre London and junior Gerald Holmes combined for 1,739 rushing yards last year, albeit at just 4.6 yards per carry. They were more or less interchangeable, though Holmes was more efficient and Scott and London showed a bit more pop. At the end of the regular season, Scott had emerged as the preferable option; he carried 22 times against Iowa. But while those carries didn't go very far, they at least set up mostly third-and-manageable situations.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Macgarrett Kings Jr.||SLOT||83||40||519||48.2%||19.4%||6.3||45.8%||32.5%||1.85|
|R.J. Shelton||WR-Z||5'11, 205||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8609||64||43||503||67.2%||15.0%||7.9||50.0%||51.6%||1.40|
|Josiah Price||TE||6'4, 260||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8725||39||23||267||59.0%||9.1%||6.8||41.0%||46.2%||1.39|
|Jamal Lyles||TE||6'3, 265||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8927||15||8||133||53.3%||3.5%||8.9||46.7%||53.3%||1.66|
|Gerald Holmes||RB||6'0, 220||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8568||12||10||92||83.3%||2.8%||7.7||50.0%||50.0%||1.49|
|Monty Madaris||WR-Z||6'1, 202||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9100||8||2||47||25.0%||1.9%||5.9||62.5%||12.5%||3.57|
|LJ Scott||RB||6'0, 238||So.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9710||8||3||15||37.5%||1.9%||1.9||25.0%||12.5%||1.47|
|Felton Davis III||WR-X||6'4, 198||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8717||4||2||50||50.0%||0.9%||12.5||50.0%||50.0%||2.43|
|Dylan Chmura||TE||6'4, 256||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.7941|
|Edward Barksdale III||WR-X||6'2, 200||Sr.||NR||NR|
|Darrell Stewart Jr.||SLOT||6'1, 208||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8585|
|Donnie Corley||WR-Z||6'3, 185||Fr.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9467|
|Justin Layne||WR||6'3, 170||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9195|
|Cam Chambers||WR||6'3, 207||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9103|
|Trishton Jackson||WR||6'3, 190||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9134|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||2015 Starts||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Jack Allen||C||12||47||2015 All-American, 2015 1st All-Big Ten|
|Jack Conklin||LT||12||38||2015 All-American, 2015 1st All-Big Ten|
|Brian Allen||C||6'2, 303||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8915||12||13||2015 2nd All-Big Ten|
|Kodi Kieler||RT||6'6, 310||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8382||11||18|
|Benny McGowan||LG||6'3, 327||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8723||8||8|
|Dennis Finley||LT||6'6, 282||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8913||1||1|
|Miguel Machado||RG||6'6, 302||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8271||0||0|
|David Beedle||LT||6'5, 310||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8438||0||0|
|Brandon Clemons||RG||6'3, 303||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8747||0||0|
|Devyn Salmon||C||6'1, 315||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8225||0||0|
|Nick Padla||RG||6'6, 302||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8256||0||0|
|Chase Gianacakos||RT||6'6, 301||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8432||0||0|
|Noah Listermann||RT||6'7, 316||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8751|
|Tyler Higby||LG||6'4, 318||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8631|
|Cole Chewins||LT||6'7, 265||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8195|
5. Injuries hurt in the present tense
It's a miracle MSU was as efficient as it was considering a) the predictability of the play-calling, b) the youth of the running back corps, and c) the shuffling that had to go on up front. Only one lineman managed to start in all 14 games, and both All-American Jacks -- center Allen and tackle Conklin -- missed two games each. But even if second-level opportunities were rare, MSU still converted as well as anyone in short-yardage situations and did a reasonable job of preventing leaks in the backfield.
Last year's shuffling could be this year's savior. Allen (a Piesman finalist), Conklin and 14-gamer Donavon Clark are gone, but there's still a large base of returning experience. Four others with starting experience return, and all of them are juniors and seniors who have been around for a while. Continuity is strong here: There is a large batch of sophomores and redshirt freshmen waiting their turn when these juniors and seniors are gone. And it's not hard to assume that if there is a drop-off in the quality of blocking, it's a small one.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||39.4%||51||Succ. Rt. +||116.1||17|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||32.0||28||Off. FP+||34.2||5|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||4.2||47||Redzone S&P+||111.7||27|
|Q1 Rk||22||1st Down Rk||21|
|Q2 Rk||9||2nd Down Rk||44|
|Q3 Rk||63||3rd Down Rk||12|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Malik McDowell||NT||6'6, 280||Jr.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9843||14||31.0||4.4%||13.0||4.5||1||0||2||0|
|Demetrius Cooper||DE||6'5, 252||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8603||13||16.5||2.4%||6.5||5.0||0||0||2||0|
|Evan Jones||DE||6'5, 246||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8530||13||4.5||0.6%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|DT||6'2, 275||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8631||8||1.5||0.2%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||1|
|Enoch Smith Jr.||NT||6'2, 294||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8777|
|Robert Bowers||DE||6'4, 256||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8519|
|Kyonta Stallworth||NT||6'3, 279||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9199|
|Raequan Williams||DT||6'4, 307||RSFr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9146|
|Cassius Peat||NT||6'3, 270||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8795|
|Justice Alexander||DE||6'5, 243||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8482|
|Josh King||DE||6'6, 230||Fr.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9524|
|Auston Robertson||DE||6'5, 260||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9495|
|Mike Panasiuk||DT||6'3, 305||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8913|
|Naquan Jones||DT||6'4, 320||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9151|
|Mufi Hunt||DE||6'6, 255||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8560|
6. A test of recruiting
Eighth, second, second, 22nd, 12th. That's Michigan State's Def. S&P+ for each of the past five seasons. The Spartans lost renowned defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to the Pitt head coaching job in 2015 and actually rose 10 spots in the rankings.
Dantonio has had a top-50 defense every year he's been in East Lansing, and he's had a top-22 or better defense in six of nine seasons. That sets a pretty clear bar. But if MSU is going to hit that mark for the seventh time in 2016, it's going to require a lot of young guys making immediate marks up front.
Only six teams ranked in the top 20 in both Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate last season: Air Force, Alabama, Boston College, Clemson, Florida, and Michigan State. As the Spartans worked through some issues in the secondary, the line was the rock. And now five of last year's top seven tacklers on the line are gone.
Granted, the two returning are quite strong. Former blue-chipper Malik McDowell could very well end up an All-American in 2016, and end Demetrius Cooper was dynamite in a backup role. Of his 16.5 tackles, 6.5 were behind the line; he had five sacks and two forced fumbles and could quite conceivably replicate the production of departed Shiilque Calhoun.
Still, State played with a rotation of about seven to eight guys in 2015. Only two returnees are proven. Some combination of seniors Evan Jones and Kevin Williams (a Nebraska grad transfer), sophomores Enoch Smith Jr. and Robert Bowers, and a host of four-star redshirt freshmen and true freshmen will have to play at a high level. Players like tackles Raequan Williams and Kyonta Stallworth and ends Josh King and Auston Robertson could make an immediate difference.
Actually, change "could" to "must."
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Riley Bullough||MIKE||6'2, 230||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8700||14||77.0||11.0%||7.5||4.0||2||2||2||1|
|Jon Reschke||SAM||6'2, 225||Jr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9194||14||53.0||7.6%||5.5||2.0||0||2||0||0|
|Ed Davis (2014)||SAM||6'3, 225||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8600||13||44.5||7.6%||12.0||7.0||0||2||1||0|
|Chris Frey||SAM||6'2, 222||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8597||14||17.5||2.5%||5.0||2.5||0||0||0||0|
|Shane Jones||MIKE||6'1, 230||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9030||13||17.5||2.5%||1.5||0.0||0||0||2||0|
|Andrew Dowell||STAR||6'0, 217||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8894||13||15.5||2.2%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||1|
|T.J. Harrell||STAR||6'1, 205||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8680||10||1.5||0.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Byron Bullough||MIKE||6'1, 224||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8763|
|Tyriq Thompson||SAM||6'1, 225||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8865|
|Demetric Vance||SAM||6'2, 193||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9100|
|Kenney Lyke||SAM||6'2, 185||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8881|
7. Too many linebackers, not enough snaps
It helps to have a linebacking corps so capable of cleaning up messes. Despite the loss of Ed Davis to injury, the MSU linebacking corps was still a strength in 2015; now Davis rejoins a unit that almost has too many guys to play. Riley Bullough is a hell of a defensive quarterback, and with potential stars in the junior, sophomore, and freshman classes, this unit is loaded for years to come. Hell, when Bullough runs out of eligibility after 2016, there's even another Bullough (Byron) waiting to take his place.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Montae Nicholson||BS||6'2, 220||Jr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9174||14||67.5||9.7%||2.5||0||3||2||1||0|
|Demetrious Cox||FS||6'1, 198||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9225||14||63.5||9.1%||2||0||3||7||0||1|
|Darian Hicks||CB||5'10, 180||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8628||11||25.5||3.6%||0.5||0||0||3||0||0|
|Grayson Miller||BS||6'3, 212||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8449||12||20.0||2.9%||1||0||1||0||0||0|
|Vayante Copeland||CB||6'0, 197||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8885||2||6.5||0.9%||2||0||1||1||0||0|
|Khari Willis||BS||5'10, 210||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8522||9||6.5||0.9%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Matt Morrissey||FS||6'2, 201||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8432||12||4.0||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Tyson Smith||CB||5'10, 173||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8805||7||3.5||0.5%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Jalen Watts-Jackson||FS||5'11, 186||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8241||7||3.5||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|David Dowell||FS||6'0, 193||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8933|
|Josh Butler||CB||5'11, 173||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8912|
|Kaleel Gaines||CB||6'0, 187||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8550|
8. Got corners?
The calling card of a Dantonio defense is the willingness to risk big plays in the name of turnovers and three-and-outs. State wants to achieve high defensive efficiency, even if the dam occasionally bursts. It wants to put its cornerbacks on an island. When you've got a lockdown guy like Darqueze Dennard on the outside, this formula results in a top-two defense. When you don't, there might be a few too many busts to land in the Def. S&P+ top 10.
Michigan State gave up 52 passes of 20-plus yards last year, 111th in the country. The Spartans got away with it because they were so good against the run and made more than their fair share of havoc plays in the process.
The safety position is loaded in 2016, with each of the top three (Montae Nicholson, Demetrious Cox, Grayson Miller) returning. But two of the top three corners are gone, and senior Darian Hicks has had an up-and-down three years. Sophomore Vayante Copeland was looking fantastic through two games but suffered a neck injury against Oregon and missed the rest of the year; if he's back and 100 percent (signs look promising), then maybe State's CB play will be fine.
But with such an aggressive defense, corner might be the most important position on the field, and we don't know for sure what the Spartans have there.
|Jake Hartbarger||6'4, 207||So.||57||42.7||8||13||19||56.1%|
|Tyler O'Connor||6'3, 225||Sr.||5||38.4||1||0||1||20.0%|
|Kevin Cronin||6'1, 215||Sr.||76||60.1||23||2||30.3%|
|Michael Geiger||5'8, 183||Sr.||51-53||8-12||66.7%||4-7||57.1%|
|R.J. Shelton||KR||5'11, 205||Sr.||19||21.8||0|
|Delton Williams||KR||6'1, 230||Sr.||2||15.5||0|
|Macgarrett Kings Jr.||PR||10||3.8||0|
|R.J. Shelton||PR||5'11, 205||Sr.||3||2.0||0|
|Special Teams S&P+||103|
|Field Goal Efficiency||103|
|Punt Return Success Rate||102|
|Kick Return Success Rate||19|
|Punt Success Rate||90|
|Kickoff Success Rate||78|
9. Special teams was a drag
Aside from R.J. Shelton's steady kick returns, MSU ranked 78th or worse in every special teams efficiency category last year. Michael Geiger was less steady than you'd like in place-kicking, punt returns didn't go anywhere, Kevin Cronin's kickoffs rarely reached the end zone, and while Jake Hartbarger's nearly 43-yard punting average was impressive, State allowed 12.8 yards per return (115th in FBS) and two touchdowns.
Yuck. That everybody is back might be a good thing, but that's not guaranteed.
(I would be remiss if I didn't offer extreme condolences here to both the Michigan State and Nebraska families after the terrible car accident that took the lives of NU's Sam Foltz and former MSU punter Mike Sadler.)
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|17-Sep||at Notre Dame||11||-6.7||35%|
|26-Nov||at Penn State||28||-1.2||47%|
|Projected wins: 7.8|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||36.5% (9)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||18 / 21|
|2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||14 / 2.3|
|2015 TO Luck/Game||+4.5|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||45% (26%, 64%)|
|2015 Second-order wins (difference)||9.8 (2.2)|
10. 3 tossups will tell the tale
Breaking: Michigan State will be good again in 2016.
The Spartans are projected a conservative 22nd in S&P+, mainly because of turnover in the passing game, but I have just enough confidence in O'Connor to assume that they will exceed that projection and threaten another top-15 ranking.
What that means for State's wins and losses will depend on a handful of key contests. The schedule is kind, and MSU has at least a 64 pecent chance of winning in eight of 12 games despite the relatively low projection. But while a loss at Notre Dame is perhaps likely, the results of the Michigan (45 percent win probability), Ohio State (52 percent), and Penn State (47 percent) games will tell us whether 2016 results in another Big Ten title run or the type of "legacy season" I expected last year.
If the coin lands on heads two of three times, it is quite conceivable that State is right back in the Big Ten title game. But if last year's happy turnovers luck reverses, maybe the Spartans settle for a 9-4 finish and a New Year's Day bowl.
Regardless, if State falls, it won't fall far. The Spartans are just too sturdily built.