The most direct path to playing like a top-15 team is recruiting at a top-15 level. Any other path is complicated and difficult to maintain. That this is so true is why college football’s oligarchy remains in place and why the blue-blood club welcomes new members so infrequently.
Mark Dantonio has won two of the last four Big Ten titles; Ohio State has won only one in that span, and rival Michigan has not even been to a conference title game. He has engineered five top-15 finishes in the last seven years, and despite inheriting a program that had bowled once in five years, he has bowled nine times in 10 seasons. His Spartans made the College Football Playoff in 2015; Michigan can’t claim anything close to that.
On paper, the Spartans have ranked 32nd or better in S&P+ in nine of his 10 seasons and 16th or better four times in a five-year span from 2011-15. He did this despite basically signing top-30 recruiting classes. That isn’t monstrous overachievement, but the steadiness is impressive.
Well, I should say it was impressive.
Everything came crashing down in 2016. The Spartans fell to 57th in S&P+, plunging 35 spots in Off. S&P+ (from 31st to 66th) and 28 spots in Def. S&P+ (from 13th to 41st). After winning nine of 10 one-possession finishes over a two-year span, they lost three of four. After averaging 9.7 wins per year through nine seasons, they lost nine games. Then they lost a number of expected starters to transfer or dismissal.
Following 2015’s CFP bid, State signed the 17th-best class in the country per the 247Sports Composite. It featured nine four-star prospects; only five remain on the roster just 16 months later. Four were recently dismissed because of sexual assault charges.
This has been a disastrous 10 months for what was once one of the steadiest programs in football.
There aren’t many routes to constant overachievement. Most require matriculation and development. You overcome a lack of elite recruiting by developing your two-deep, avoiding misses, and fielding experienced squads.
Dantonio has done that as well as anyone. But he went 3-9 with one of those experienced squads, and in 2017, a youth movement has been forced upon him. For the first time in a decade, there are questions about his decision-making and concerns about whether he can steer out of the skid.
Dantonio heads in with an incredibly green squad. The starting quarterback, top four receivers, half the first-string offensive line, half the first- and second-string defensive line and linebacking corps, and four of the top five defensive backs are gone.
The good news is that, until you’re pushed out, you have a chance to rebound. Plenty of strong athletes and regarded recruits remain, and even if State stinks, there’s a chance that a core of talent and leadership emerges. The Spartans will start very few seniors, so whoever takes hold will probably be back next fall. If Dantonio survives the calendar year with his job intact, he could get a head start on pushing forward again in 2018.
That’s the rosy spin. Before you can rebound, you have to stop plummeting. It could get worse before it gets better.
2016 in review
A couple of Big Ten team previews — Illinois, Maryland — have focused on how inefficiency can render you inconsistent. Michigan State’s offense wasn’t as all-or-nothing as that of the Fighting Illini or Terrapins, but the Spartans ranked 86th in success rate and 102nd in points per scoring opportunity.
How inconsistent was the Sparty offense?
- State vs. Notre Dame, Indiana, Northwestern, Michigan, Rutgers, and Ohio State: Avg. percentile performance: 72% (offense 79%, defense 49%) | Avg. yards per play: MSU 6.3, Opp 5.5 | Avg. score: MSU 31, Opp 26
- State vs. Furman, Wisconsin, BYU, Maryland, Illinois, and Penn State: Avg. percentile performance: 31% (offense 29%, defense 37% | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.5, MSU 5.0 | Avg. score: Opp 30, MSU 17
The first sample features four home games and four games against S&P+ top-50 teams; the second features three home games and three top-50 opponents. That’s about as even as you can get. The defensive output was similar, but in Sample A, State had a top-25-level offense; in Sample B, it was more like top 90.
If Michigan State could have played every game like it played the Michigan or Ohio State games, the season would have been fine. The Spartans averaged 5.7 yards per play against an awesome Wolverine D and held Ohio State to 4.6 in an unlucky loss.
Alas, there was another Michigan State, one capable of losing to Illinois, losing by double digits to Maryland, and barely easing by Furman.
Injuries played a role. Quarterback Tyler O’Connor dealt with inconsistency and concussion, got replaced, and returned thanks to Brian Lewerke’s broken leg. Plus, eight offensive linemen started at least three games (and only one started all 12).
Though the defense was a little steadier, for better or worse, the front seven was a revolving door, and not a single regular defensive back played in all 12 games. State’s depth was tenuous heading in, and thinner teams are going to struggle to withstand attrition.
Of course, depth is far more tenuous this year.
O’Connor pulled off a feat in his lone year as Michigan State’s starting quarterback. He produced a season passer rating of 135.2 — neither great nor terrible — but in only two of 11 games was his rating within 25 points of 135. On three occasions (losses to Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State), it was below 90. In these games, he threw one touchdown to five interceptions and completed a miserable 47 percent of his passes.
On three other occasions (wins over Furman and Rutgers and the shootout loss to Northwestern), his passer rating was above 200. He had nine touchdowns to two interceptions then and completed two-thirds of his passes. Yes, that includes Rutgers and Furman, but it also includes Northwestern’s sturdy defense.
This level of inconsistency was impressive, but it tells us nothing about State moving forward. Not only is O’Connor gone, but so are his top four targets. The leading returning passer is sophomore Lewerke, who took over for O’Connor, completed 31 passes, and broke his leg. The leading returning receiver is junior Felton Davis III, who caught 12 balls, six against Illinois.
There are star recruits in the pipeline, at least. Lewerke was a high-three-star recruit, and both senior Damion Terry and redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver were four-stars. In the receiving corps, Davis was a high-three, and sophomores Trishton Jackson and Justin Layne and redshirt freshman Cam Chambers were fours. The ceiling is high for the passing game, though co-coordinators Jim Bollman and Dave Warner aren’t going to throw much if they don’t have to.
As was the case in 2015, State maintained a straight-forward plan: run on standard downs, throw on passing downs. In 2015, with Connor Cook, the Spartans ranked 21st in standard-downs run rate and 121st in passing-downs run rate; in 2016, with a new QB, they still ranked 22nd and 100th, respectively. This predictability isn’t helpful unless you’ve got a strong passing unit. State did not.
It probably won’t in 2017 either; Lewerke had a lower completion rate and per-attempt average than O’Connor.
On the plus side, Lewerke also made fewer mistakes (he had lower sack and interception rates), and his running ability is intriguing. Not only did he take fewer sacks, he doubled O’Connor’s rushing average, attempting 18 non-sack rushes and gaining 169 yards.
Lewerke’s mobility can only help LJ Scott and Gerald Holmes. Despite the passing inconsistency and the ever-changing OL two-deep, Scott improved his efficiency (opportunity rate: 33 percent in 2015, 41 percent in 2016) and explosiveness (highlight yards per opportunity: 4.9 in 2015, 5.3 in 2016) and enters his junior year as one of the more proven backs in the conference. Holmes is more all-or-nothing, but you can take that from a backup.
The line is an experiment in optimism vs. pessimism. The optimist would point out that two-year starter Brian Allen is back after anchoring last year’s line and becoming the only lineman to survive all 12 games. Four others with starting experience return; that includes guards Tyler Higby and David Beedle, who started a year’s worth of games between them.
The pessimist would point out that the four most experienced guys after Allen are gone. Higby, Beedle, and tackle Cole Chewins have combined for 14 starts. The four departures combined for 62. Line consistency is a massive requirement for a predictable offense; there’s no guarantee it will exist. Still, a Lewerke-Scott backfield is appealing, and I don’t expect further drop-off from the State offense. I don’t expect improvement either.
The double dip will kill you. In last year’s State preview (awkwardly titled “You're not counting Michigan State out of the 2016 Big Ten title race, are you?“ and finishing with the line, “if State falls, it won't fall far. The Spartans are just too sturdily built.”), I noted that Dantonio’s defensive line recruiting was losing five of the top seven tacklers up front. It was difficult to imagine an MSU front struggling much, but 2016 was going to be a test.
It became more of a test when no one could stay healthy. Star tackle Malik McDowell missed three games, and the end spot opposite Demetrius Cooper cycled between Option A, B, C, and D. As a result, State fell from 15th to 49th in Rushing S&P+ and, more devastating, from 18th to 124th in Adj. Sack Rate. McDowell and Cooper were the only two who logged more than five tackles for loss up front, and neither topped seven.
Now, after losing five of seven, the line must replace five of last year’s top 10, including McDowell. And it might be six — Cooper’s status with the team is in limbo. That’s a ton of turnover in a two-year span.
Sophomore tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk are your de facto leaders up front, especially if Cooper is gone. They were both four-star recruits, as were other young tackles like sophomore Kyonta Stallworth and redshirt freshman Naquan Jones. There could be enough talent to make some plays and occupy blockers for Chris Frey, Andrew Dowell, and the linebacking corps.
Even if there’s a future in the middle, end is a mystery. Cooper led the team with all of 2.5 sacks, and juniors Robert Bowers and Dillon Alexander combined for 0.5. For all of the recruiting at tackle, not only are there zero four-star ends, two walk-ons (Alexander and Kenny Willekes) could end up in the rotation. That’s not a recipe for an improved pass rush.
If the pass rush doesn’t become less miserable, I’m not sure how the pass defense improves. Michigan State was shockingly bad last year after years of being known more for good pass defense than for anything else; the Spartans ranked 120th in Passing S&P+ and got gashed by nearly every passing game with a pulse (and some without a pulse). Notre Dame, Northwestern, Maryland, and Penn State combined for a 69 percent completion rate, an 11-to-2 TD-to-INT ratio, and a 177.4 passer rating.
And now State has to replace four of last year’s top five, including corners Vayante Copeland and Darian Hicks. (Junior Tyson Smith’s status is very much up in the air after he revealed he had a stroke late in 2016.) Yikes.
Maybe some new blood in the secondary isn’t the worst thing; plus, thanks to injury, four returnees got enough opportunity to record double-digit tackles. But aside from maybe Smith, no returnee defensed more than two passes last year; the known play-makers are gone, and play-prevention isn’t automatically going to get better with new starters.
The key could be the sophomores. Safety David Dowell was a spring game starter, corners Josh Butler and Justin Layne (a part-time receiver) were four-star recruits, and Layne showed some decent ball skills in limited action. There is not a single senior in the backfield, and if two of these three sophs find themselves, this unit could rebound in 2018. But 2017 is going to be a trial.
(That sentence goes for more than just the secondary.)
Place-kicker Michael Geiger’s steadiness was the catalyst behind State’s improvement from 108th to 46th in Special Teams S&P+. Unfortunately, Geiger’s gone, and the coverage units and return game were still mediocre at best. It might be difficult for State to remain in the top 50 here.
2017 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|11-Nov||at Ohio State||2||-23.4||9%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||44|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||65 / 34|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||12.2 (19)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||25 / 23|
|2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-5 / -5.3|
|2016 TO Luck/Game||+0.1|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||44% (35%, 52%)|
|2016 Second-order wins (difference)||5.0 (-2.0)|
My February S&P+ projections suggested a rebound. A No. 44 ranking and 6-6 record would feel like a crippling disappointment for State in any other season, but it would mark a step forward this time.
The problem: February was quite a few transfers and dismissals ago. When I update the projections in August, it’s unlikely that State remains in the top 50.
There’s still a path to the postseason here; if State can sweep Bowling Green, WMU, and Maryland at home and Rutgers on the road, the Spartans would need to steal two other games to reach six wins, and with Notre Dame, Iowa, and Indiana visiting East Lansing, that’s not an impossibility.
Still, “with some breaks, State might win six!” is quite the low bar for a team that was in the national semifinals 17 months ago. I like Lewerke, and the State run game could power a far steadier offense, and it would be surprising if the run defense didn’t improve. But the passing game is starting over, and the smoking crater of a pass defense is going to take a while to rebuild.
State fell apart on the field and has since dealt with its worst offseason in the Dantonio era. A bowl would be nice, but the goal has to be building for 2018, even if that means playing some younger guys and losing a game or two you otherwise shouldn’t.