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2011 Season Preview: Last Impressions And The Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State didn't make the most of its last impression in 2010, but the Spartans still won 11 games and played as consistently well as almost any team in the country. State is built for winning close games, but with a thinner offensive line and a defense reliant on sophomores stepping up, they might be a year away from returning to the land of double-digit wins.

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NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, skip to the words.

In this year's Crimson Tide Kickoff 2011 for Maple Street Press, I was asked to write a piece about just how ridiculously dominant Alabama's win over Michigan State was in the Capital One Bowl this past January 1. Make no mistake: it was indeed ridiculous. And it certainly had a solid impact on the year's final F/+ rankings -- Alabama rose from fourth to third, State fell from 24th to 30th, a rather significant shift for that late in the season. Though the numbers suggest Alabama's performance was more great than State's was terrible ... State's performance was still their worst of the season. It has, almost without a doubt, clouded some analysts' and fans' views of the green and white.

But the effect bowls have on perceptions is infinitely stronger than the impact it has on the field moving forward. In our minds, we tend to overstate bowl results because it's the last thing we see of a team before an eight-month hiatus; it is the spot in your eyesight that lingers if you stare into the sun for a moment. But in the end it is just one of 13 or 14 different important impressions a team makes. Late results carry a bit more heft moving forward, but in the end one poor (or great) performance has very little bearing on how a team is projected to play the next season.

Of course, that doesn't mean Michigan State's projections are going to tremendous; despite an 11-2 record, State did, after all, come in only 30th overall. They were a sound, solid team that was good at almost everything and great at almost nothing. They play a physical style designed to wear opponents down over the course of the game, and when they are good at that style, as they were in 2010, it pays off. But relying on close wins is not something that will either a) impress the Football Outsiders numbers or b) win big from year to year.

Michigan State in Close Games During Mark Dantonio's Tenure:
2007: 2-6
2008: 2-1
2009: 2-4
2010: 4-0

When the pieces are in place -- when State has sturdy linebackers who guarantee efficiency on standard downs, solid safeties preventing big plays, a deep running back unit and line capable of wearing opponents out, and a quarterback who excels as a game manager -- then State is capable of winning big under Dantonio. And with recruiting excelling in recent years, they could move more and more toward every-year success. But for now, the Spartans will need a host of sophomores to step up on defense to maintain last year's mojo. In a Big Ten Legends Division with no clear leader, they could take a step backwards in 2011 and still potentially compete for a spot in the inaugural Big Ten championship game. At least they better hope so, as they probably aren't in position to win 11 games again this fall.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 11-2 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk**: 30
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Western Michigan 38-14 W 46.4 - 10.1 W
11-Sep vs Florida Atlantic 30-17 W 34.8 - 30.0 W
18-Sep Notre Dame 34-31 W 38.7 - 32.0 W
25-Sep Northern Colorado
45-7 W 35.8 - 35.2 W
2-Oct Wisconsin 34-24 W 34.2 - 15.2 W
9-Oct at Michigan 34-17 W 32.6 - 26.4 W
16-Oct Illinois 26-6 W 29.3 - 7.3 W
23-Oct at Northwestern 35-27 W 31.4 - 26.5 W
30-Oct at Iowa 6-37 L 15.8 - 29.7 L
6-Nov Minnesota 31-8 W 19.3 - 17.9 W
20-Nov Purdue 35-31 W 33.6 - 32.1 W
27-Nov at Penn State 28-22 W 32.6 - 32.2 W
1-Jan vs Alabama 7-49 L 15.0 - 36.0 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 29.5 47 22.3 39
Adj. Points Per Game 30.7 35 25.4 45

Michigan State truly was a unique team in 2010, good enough to beat an average team almost every week, but not good enough to rank in the F/+ Top 25 at the end of the season. They really only played poorly twice all year, but it speaks to their margin for error that in those two poor games, they got destroyed by a combined 86-13.

The offense slowed down at the end of the season, as quarterback Kirk Cousins got hurt and freshman running back Le'Veon Bell hit the freshman wall:

MSU Offense, first four games: 39.4 Adj. PPG
MSU Offense, next four games: 31.9 Adj. PPG
MSU Offense, last five games: 23.3 Adj. PPG

Still, for the year as a whole, this was a sound overall squad. They may have had to play well every week to survive, but they almost did just that.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 21 34 11
RUSHING 26 67 12 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 20 20 15 38
Standard Downs 35 60 28 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 25 36 23 75
Redzone 4 40 3
Q1 Rk 84 1st Down Rk 26
Q2 Rk 28 2nd Down Rk 29
Q3 Rk 11 3rd Down Rk 73
Q4 Rk 48

I was watching a replay of the Notre Dame-Michigan State game Saturday night on the Big Ten Network (note to husbands everywhere: buy your wife a Nook; you end up getting to watch a lot more of what you want that way ... even college football repeats late on a Saturday night). In it, the announcing team discussed how the two teams' offenses had completely different philosophies. Notre Dame passed to set up the run, while State ran to set up the pass. That was my impression in watching them play as well. Big, young backs Edwin Baker (1,201 yards, 5.8 per carry, +14.1 Adj. POE, 13 TD) and Le'Veon Bell (605 yards, 5.7 per carry, +11.6 Adj. POE, 8 TD) combined for 1,800 yards on about 25 carries per game.

While State wasn't exactly Michigan or Nebraska in their single-minded focus on the run, they certainly did love the good, old-fashioned, run-and-play-action combination. They either ran or attempted play-action on standard downs, and threw in the requisite number of draws on passing downs. When all was said and done, they were perched almost precisely on the national averages for run-pass ratios on both types of downs. And they rarely varied too far from the script (at least as it pertains to the parts of the script that don't involve fake field goals in overtime).

As any chef will tell you, balance is important. Sweet and sour, creamy and salty. But balance is only going to work if each taste is of reasonably high quality. Michigan State was almost equally good (never great) in every regard. They ranked between 20th and 35th in all four major S&P+ categories (run, pass, standard downs, passing downs), and while their efficiency was lacking on the ground (they were quite all-or-nothing), they were capable of producing big plays at all times. They were good in all areas of the game and great in the red zone. Plus, in pure run-first fashion, they got better as the game progressed. They poked and prodded and relied on defenses to wear down and become more vulnerable, and when they weren't playing Iowa or Alabama, it worked.

I'm spending a lot of time talking about last year's approach because, well, one should expect the same in 2011. Despite the departure of coordinator Don Treadwell to Miami (Ohio), the new coordinator (offensive line coach Dan Roushar) isn't likely to change much. Plus, the Spartans just don't have to replace that many skill position options. Quarterback Kirk Cousins (2,825 yards, 8.4 per pass, 67% completion rate, 20 TD, 10 INT) is back, as are both running backs and four of last year's top six targets.

  • The one unit on the MSU offense that experiences some turnover is the offensive line. Three starters depart, including left tackle D.J. Young, a second-team all-conference performer. The line was solid if unspectacular last year, but depth was enough of a concern that a couple of defensive linemen -- including Blake Treadwell, who started six games at nose tackle last year, and Dan France -- shifted to the other side of the ball.
  • There are quite a few records withing Kirk Cousins' reach if he has a strong senior season. He'll go through life without two interesting targets, Mark Dell (788 yards, 15.5 per catch, 65% catch, 6 TD) and tight end Charlie Gantt (301 yards, 12.5 per catch, 67% catch rate, 3 TD). But he's still got receivers of all shapes and sizes lining up wide. B.J. Cunningham (611 yards, 12.2 per catch, 68% catch rate, 9 TD) is a strong possession option, former quarterback Keith Nichol (262 yards, 11.9 per catch, 65% catch rate, 1 TD) is decent, and Brian Linthicum (230 yards, 12.8 per catch, 52% catch rate, 1 TD) could replicate Gantt's production if he becomes a bit more reliable in the hands department.

    Perhaps the most interesting option is senior Keshawn Martin (394 yards, 12.3 per catch, 76% catch rate, 1 TD), who was an incredibly reliable target and run threat (157 yards on the ground). Dell's per-catch proficiency will be missed, but Martin has averaged 15.4 per catch over his 61 career receptions and could fill that void.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 39 33 40
RUSHING 31 45 31 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 33 27 38 50
Standard Downs 33 16 40 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 77 106 60 81
Redzone 75 94 62
Q1 Rk 35 1st Down Rk 22
Q2 Rk 53 2nd Down Rk 69
Q3 Rk 48 3rd Down Rk 35
Q4 Rk 30

Like the offense, State's defense was strangely well-rounded versus the run and the pass. However, they did have one clear weakness: they evidently lost their aggression on passing downs. Typically, success rates are a sign of both aggression and tackling ability, and State's defense was one of the best in the country in this regard on standard downs. But for State, the aggression dealt almost solely with their defending of the run. All-American linebacker Greg Jones had 10.0 tackles for loss but only one sack; fellow linebacker Eric Gordon had 6.5 tackles for loss but only two sacks. State's Adj. Sack Rate fell from 62nd on standard downs to 93rd on passing downs, and it exposed a conservative secondary.

The good news in this regard is that virtually everybody on the line returns, and despite the loss of end Colin Neely (25.0 tackles, 10.0 TFL/sacks), the pass rush should improve. Tackle (and sacks leader) Jerel Worthy (27.0 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) returns, as does end Tyler Hoover (25.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks), but the pressure will be on former blue-chipper William Gholston (8.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks) to step up his game after a true freshman season spent mostly as an apprentice. State's recruiting may be improving, but they haven't loaded up on five-star recruits just yet, and those they've landed can't hide from the spotlight. Expectations are high for the 6-foot-7 Gholston, especially considering his emergence would shore up State's biggest weakness.

Despite the obvious weaknesses on passing downs, this defense still got the job done for the most part because of standard downs. Opponents passed a bit more than average on the Spartans, but second-team all-conference safeties Marcus Hyde (66.0 tackles, 3 INT, 8 PBU) and Trenton Robinson (55.5 tackles, 4 INT, 8 PBU) helped to generally keep the big plays to a minimum. Hyde is gone, but the hope is that, as with Gholston, one of two sophomores -- either Jairus Jones or Isaiah Lewis (combined: 22.5 tackles) -- is ready to raise their game.

Other tidbits:

  • The linebacker position has been so incredibly reliable for State in recent years, and that is mostly because of Greg Jones (67.5 tackles, 10.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 3 FF, 3 PBU). He was the State security blanket, but he is gone, as is Eric Gordon. While the line should improve, the linebackers could regress unless more sophomores -- in this case, Max Bullough (16.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks) or Denicos Allen (15.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks) -- along with a couple of juniors like Steve Gardiner (13.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks) and junior college transfer Lawrence Thomas are ready to step in. Because Jones and Gordon played so many downs, the backups did not rack up a huge line of stats. That doesn't mean the new guys cannot produce, but it certainly means we have no idea what they're capable of producing.
  • It's not hard to catch the theme here, is it? The sophomore class is vital to State's success. The Spartans don't lose a ton of depth from last year's squad, but they still have to replace an All-American, three second-team all-conference players, and their TFLs leader on the line. There are players with potential everywhere you look, but the training wheels are off.

Michigan State's 2010 Season Set to Music

We'll go with My Morning Jacket's "Off The Record." Like State's season, it's peppy and exciting with an extremely forgettable, slightly annoying ending.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit


Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 36
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 32
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +5 / +7.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (6, 6)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -2.7

One would think that a major conference team that managed to win 11 games despite an overall ranking of 30th (and despite getting obliterated by the best team on its schedule) got some lucky bounces along the way. And to be sure, a 4-0 record in close games suggests the same (after all, the genius fake field goal against Notre Dame was only genius because an Irish defender fell down). But in all, they weren't quite as lucky as you might think. Their YPP margin is balanced out slightly by what was rather poor fumbles luck, and as their Adj. Score suggests above, they really were quite consistent. State succeeded in ways they can duplicate in the future -- punishing run game, play-action, and an aggressive, fundamentally sound defense. But while there is a lot to like about the offense (basically the same things one would have liked last year, minus some line depth), the defense looks as if it is probably a year away from regaining its 2010 form. You can succeed counting on sophomores, but it's difficult to plan on it.

We have just about finalized our Football Outsiders 2011 projections, and it appears as if the Legends division is going to be a complete free-for-all, with Nebraska, State, Michigan and Iowa all having a chance at the crown. State gets Michigan at home but has to head to both Lincoln and Iowa City, and that will probably preclude them from taking the title. But with underclassmen in the backfield and a super-young defense, State should be able to build for making serious noise in 2012.




* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.