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Michigan State’s 2017 youth movement was strangely successful. Now Sparty’s extremely experienced.

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Mark Dantonio’s Spartans were as surprisingly good last fall as they were surprisingly bad the year before. Now what?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan
Josiah Scott
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Below is a preview of Michigan State’s 2018 football team. But first, we must acknowledge that the university continues to deal with the consequences of Larry Nassar’s unthinkable actions and the inability/refusal (your choice) of either Michigan State or USA Gymnastics administration to stop him. The school remains without a full-time president or athletic director.

Mark Dantonio’s football program has not been without sexual assault allegations (Tom Izzo’s basketball program, either), though he maintains that he always reported allegations he knew about to proper authorities. As reports swirled about his potential resignation earlier this year, Dantonio’s contract was extended in February. No matter what we choose to think about the situation, he is clearly going nowhere in the short term.

The school recently reached a $500 million settlement with Nassar’s victims. You can read more about it here, here, and here.

The Spartans are going to play a 2018 football season, and here’s a look at it. This preview’s been updated to reflect offseason roster news.

The most encouraging thing you could say about Michigan State football heading into 2017 was that there was no choice but to start fresh.

When overachiever programs — and with three consecutive top-six AP finishes from 2013-15, despite recruiting rankings in the 20s, MSU very much qualifies — fall off a bit, they sometimes lean on older players and old ideas in the hopes of wringing out a little bit more magic.

Dantonio didn’t change his philosophy much, but there were few experienced players on the roster in 2017, and there was suddenly no success to cling to: the Spartans were 3-9 the previous fall. A wave of players had graduated, transferred, or gotten dismissed, and MSU was starting over at quarterback, receiver, offensive line, defensive line, and secondary.

With the young talent and what looked like a manageable schedule (State played five games against teams that finished 74th or worse in S&P+, plus three more between 46th and 51st), it wasn’t hard to see Dantonio’s Spartans challenging for a bowl bid despite all the turnover.

They achieved bowl eligibility seven games into the season.

Leaning on all the defense-and-ball-control principles that led to so much success in the first place, Dantonio pulled off his second big Michigan State turnaround. The offense was mostly stagnant (92nd in Off. S&P+), but the defense was MSU’s best since 2013, finishing fourth in Def. S&P+ and holding eight opponents to 17 or fewer points.

They beat Michigan in a monsoon and ended Penn State’s title hopes in a game postponed for hours by storms. It was perhaps a bit lucky to face two of the four most athletic teams on the schedule in wet conditions — the other two, Notre Dame and Ohio State, beat the Spartans by a combined 86-21. Plus, MSU benefited from 2.3 points per game in turnovers luck.

Still, the Spartans’ “tilt the field and wait” strategy is pretty sound when it comes to winning close games; they were 21-8 in one-possession finishes between 2010-15, and they went 5-1 in such games last fall. And even if they’d only gone 7-6 or so, that would have still been an impressive reversal in on-field fortunes.

All told, State combined 10 wins with a top-15 AP finish for the sixth time in eight years and enter 2018 with a lineup that now returns more of last year’s production than anyone else in FBS. Plus, despite life in the Big Ten East (which features four teams projected 11th or better in S&P+, including MSU), the 2018 schedule is once again manageable — the Spartans play seven teams projected 54th or worse, and three of the four best opponents on the schedule have to come to East Lansing.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Washington State vs Michigan State
Mark Dantonio
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

2017 Michigan State offensive radar

In 2015, Michigan State made the CFP with a run-first offense that couldn’t run the ball. That year the Spartans ranked just 73rd in rushing success rate and benefited significantly from quarterback Connor Cook’s ability to make big third-down passes: on third-and-7 or more, he was 45-for-79 for 766 yards, six touchdowns, and just one interception. That’s a 57 percent completion rate and a 160.9 passer rating despite a challenging offense.

Brian Lewerke couldn’t produce that last fall, but despite playing in what remains one of the most QB-unfriendly systems in football — MSU runs on standard downs (31st in run rate on SDs) and passes on passing downs (87th in run rate on PDs) — he made his mark. The Spartans ranked just 100th in rushing success rate in 2017, but thanks to Lewerke, they were 29th in passing-downs success rate and ninth in Passing Downs S&P+.

This approach drives me crazy — there is free yardage via the air on standard downs, especially when you can’t actually run well — and tamps down your upside. But if you trust your QB not to make crippling mistakes on those passing downs, and if you have a dynamite defense, it can evidently work.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Washington State vs Michigan State
Brian Lewerke
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Adjusting for down, distance, and opponent, Lewerke had a lovely first season. He completed 59 percent of his passes (61 percent if you remove the passes on third-and-10 or longer), and State finished 17th in Passing S&P+. He’s back, and he gets last year’s top four targets back as well. That includes efficiency targets in Felton Davis III and Darrell Stewart Jr. and big-play Z-receiver Cody White.

White emerged as a key piece midway through his freshman season; he caught just five balls for 50 yards in the first six games but produced 30 for 440 and four touchdowns thereafter. He helped to provide a distraction for Davis, who would enjoy a few big games down the stretch — eight catches for 95 yards against Northwestern, 12 for 181 against Penn State, and four for 118 against Washington State.

With tight end Matt Sokol and a load of young receivers — sophomores Cam Chambers and Laress Nelson, redshirt freshmen C.J. Hayes and Emmanuel Flowers, four-star freshman tight end Trenton Gillison — there’s no reason to think the passing game will be any less effective. The main question is how frequently Lewerke will have to throw on second- or third-and-long.

The run game will at least be familiar. LJ Scott is back for his senior season, and thanks to shuffling last year, MSU loses all-conference center Brian Allen but still returns five guys with more than a season’s worth of starting experience. Both tackle Luke Campbell and guard Kevin Jarvis earned honorable mention all-conference recognition as freshmen last year (though since the Big Ten releases a first, second, and third team, plus honorable mention, the bar might be kind of low).

Scott had a frustrating year. His per-carry average fell from 5.4 yards to 4.5 — he had great games against Minnesota and Washington State (43 combined carries for 304 yards) and averaged 3.8 yards per carry otherwise, and he fumbled five times, to boot. His primary backups are gone, so he’ll be complemented by either sophomore Connor Heyward, redshirt freshman Weston Bridges, or a true freshman. That likely means he gets to carry as big a load as he can handle. A handful fewer negative plays would go a long way.

With almost all of a great defense returning, there’s no reason to think Dantonio will task co-coordinators Dave Warner and Jim Bollman with suddenly opening things up. So expect more passing-downs conversions.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern
Felton Davis III (18) and Cole Chewins (61)
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 Michigan State defensive radar

What a damn job Dantonio and coordinator Mike Tressel did with this defense last year. MSU came in having lost five of its top 10 linemen, three of six linebackers, and four of five defensive backs, all after falling to a surprising 41st in Def. S&P+ the previous year.

With this new set of contributors — with three sophomores and a freshman in the primary line rotation (and a sophomore walk-on starting at end), a sophomore with 7.5 career tackles leading the way at middle linebacker, and five freshmen and sophomores in the primary rotation in the secondary — the Spartans surged back into the Def. S&P+ top 5. And they did it with balance.

2017 Michigan State defensive efficiency & explosiveness

The last time the Spartans had a defense this good, it was all-or-nothing — in 2013, they ranked first in success rate allowed but only 70th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of the offense’s successful plays); that worked out because efficiency is the biggest, most sustainable factor in football. But last year’s MSU defense took a little bit more off of its drive and dealt with fewer huge glitches. Only five FBS teams allowed fewer gains of 30-plus yards, and only 14 allowed a lower success rate.

Among the 17 defenders who made at least nine tackles last year, here’s what MSU now has to replace:

  • end Demetrius Cooper (5.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks)
  • strongside linebacker Chris Frey (4.5 TFLs, four sacks)

That’s it.

Cooper and Frey were good, but this is a level of continuity virtually no one in FBS can match.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Michigan State
Kenny Willekes (48)
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

That walk-on end? Kenny Willekes exploded for 14.5 TFLs and seven sacks and took part in 14 run stuffs (stops at or behind the line). That green MLB? Joe Bachie had 8.5 TFLs, three sacks, and five passes defensed took part in 15 stuffs. They were sophomores, as were tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk (8.5 TFLs combined).

The top three corners were two sophomores (Justin Layne and Josh Butler) and a freshman (Josiah Scott). Safeties Khari Willis and David Dowell (a junior and sophomore, respectively) combined for 5.5 TFLs (all from Willis) and 14 passes defensed.

So many young contributors, so many big-time contributions. It is not supposed to work this way, even for teams that recruit well. And while there were some former four-stars worked into this mix, there were plenty of three-star guys.

As for who fills the only two holes in the starting lineup, there are some intriguing candidates.

  • At end, Jacub Panasiuk had basically the same TFLs-per-tackles ratio as Cooper but not quite the same ratio of run stuffs.
  • At linebacker, any of sophomores Antjuan Simmons and Brandon Randle, junior Tyriq Thompson, or Byron Bullough should be able to fill Frey’s shoes. The program also reinstated Jon Reschke, who left the program in February 2017, reportedly after calling a teammate the N-word. Dantonio said Reschke paid “the ultimate price” by missing 2017.

Barring injuries, the defense is likely to finish in the top 10.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan State
Khari Willis
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Continuing the theme, freshmen handled the place-kicking (Matt Coghlin), kick returning (Connor Heyward), and punt return (Laress Nelson and Cody White) duties.

As with the defense, young contributors held their own. Coghlin was nearly automatic under 40 yards (and pretty good beyond 40), kick returns were efficient (if not particularly explosive), and junior punter Jake Hartbarger was solid, too.

The result: improvement from 46th to 24th in Special Teams S&P+. Again, it’s not supposed to work that way.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Utah State 77 21.6 89%
8-Sep at Arizona State 57 13.2 78%
22-Sep at Indiana 58 13.3 78%
29-Sep Central Michigan 116 32.3 97%
6-Oct Northwestern 38 14.0 79%
13-Oct at Penn State 8 -4.7 39%
20-Oct Michigan 10 2.2 55%
27-Oct Purdue 54 17.3 84%
3-Nov at Maryland 80 17.2 84%
10-Nov Ohio State 1 -6.5 35%
17-Nov at Nebraska 60 13.5 78%
24-Nov Rutgers 84 23.6 91%
Projected S&P+ Rk 11
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 57 / 3
Projected wins 8.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 11.2 (19)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 33 / 23
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 3 / -3.0
2017 TO Luck/Game +2.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 92% (92%, 91%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 9.4 (0.6)

Of the four Big Ten East teams projected in the S&P+ top 11 (Ohio State is first, Penn State eighth, Michigan 10th, MSU 11th), I guess I trust the Spartans the least, simply because it hasn’t been that long (2016) since they were a bad team. At this point, you have to figure 2016 was the blip, and not 2017, but it’s always possible that there was some low-expectation, lightning-in-a-bottle action going on last year.

On paper, though, this team is extremely Michigan State and has a chance to win a lot. The Spartans will continue to run Scott into the line for two yards on first down too much for my liking, but Lewerke showed enough magic to put some points on the board, and the combination of defensive efficiency and solid special teams should again tilt the field in Sparty’s favor.

And if they really are a top-11 team, the schedule sets up incredibly well: S&P+ marks them as at least a 13-point favorite in nine games, and getting Ohio State at home means they’re not more than a touchdown underdog in any game.

Over the last two years, Michigan State has dramatically underachieved once and dramatically overachieved once. All the Spartans have to do is achieve this year, and there’s a chance it’s their seventh 10-win season under Dantonio.

Team preview stats

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