10 bold predictions for Michigan State in 2020
Mel Tucker already was going to have his hands full turning around a 7-6 Michigan State team that had become stagnant in the waning years of Mark Dantonio, and then 2020 happened. Task No. 1 is finding a reliable QB followed by filling the holes vacated by 13 starters.
No one is expecting the Spartans to compete with the top of the Big Ten in Year 1 under Tucker, but these 10 things all may come to fruition.
1. Theo Day starts by Week 4
It’s no secret that there’s a QB battle in East Lansing. The Spartans need to replace 3-year starter Brian Lewerke and don’t have a thrilling option with much experience. Given the absence of spring ball and fewer offseason workouts, MSU will probably initially lean on what little experience Rocky Lombardi does have (175 pass attempts), but following two straight weeks of what should be pretty good defenses in Michigan and Iowa, Jay Johnson opts to switch things up and turns to the redshirt-sophomore Day.
2. Elijah Collins rushes for at least 720 yards
Collins was unquestionably the breakout star of the offense in 2019, finishing with 988 yards in 13 games. As the Spartans work in a new QB, OC and lead WR, Collins remains the one constant. Expect the redshirt sophomore to average north of 90 yards a game as he no longer has to deal with running behind an inexperienced, patchwork offensive line.
3. Antjuan Simmons leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss
Simmons finished last season with 15 tackles for loss, good for 10th in the conference. Only one player who finished ahead of him returns for the 2020 season. Simmons is the only returning starter to the linebacker group, and regardless of which spot new DC Scottie Hazelton puts him at, he’ll be one of the leaders on the defensive side of the ball.
4. Jayden Reed makes Third-Team All-Big Ten
Perhaps the most exciting piece to the Spartans offense is the potential of the WR transfer from Western Michigan. A 2018 Freshman All-American, Reed will play a major role in the Michigan State offense after losing its two top receivers from a year ago. Reed presents the first real deep threat that the Spartans have had in a few years. The redshirt sophomore also has chemistry with QB Peyton Thorne dating back to middle school, so if Thorne does emerge during the season as the starter, there’s always that factor benefitting Reed’s case.
5. The Spartans return a kick for a TD for the first time since 2014
Michigan State’s returners have been pedestrian to say the least. The Spartans ranked 12th last season in the conference in kick returns and near the middle of the pack in punt returns. At some point, something’s got to give, and Reed may be that something. He returned 12 punts for 215 yards at Western Michigan in 2018, including a 93-yard return that went for a score.
6. Xavier Henderson leads the team in tackles
Yes, it’s strange for a safety to lead the team in tackles, but Henderson had the second-most last season with 83, trailing only Antjuan Simmons. The Spartans are tasked with replacing half of their starting secondary from 2019, so Henderson expects to take on an even larger role as teams potentially target the inexperienced secondary.
7. Chase Kline is the best new defensive starter
With the defense replacing seven starters from 2019, there are plenty of options to go here. Kline played in all 13 games last season, recording 3 tackles and a sack in 52 defensive snaps. He played at both defensive end and outside linebacker, making him a versatile piece in Mel Tucker and Scottie Hazelton’s defense. No one has spoken with higher regard about the 4-star recruit than Antjuan Simmons, which is saying something from a 3-year starter.
8. Offense eclipses 400 yards a game
Not since the days of 2014 with Connor Cook, Jeremy Langford and Tony Lippett has a Spartan offense breached the 400-yard threshold. Last season Michigan State averaged 371.9, but with a healthy offensive line, Elijah Collins and Jayden Reed, there should be more explosive plays this year, helping to boost that number. Tackling has been down in other conferences this year thanks to the limited offseason, so offensive yardage seems to be on an upward tick.
9. 5 sacks for Jacub Panasiuk
The Michigan State defense received great news when Panasiuk opted back into the season. His 5 sacks last year were second-best on the team and tied for 18th in the conference. While Panasiuk will now garner the lion’s share of attention from offensive lines following the departure of Kenny Willekes, it should still be another big year for the senior defensive end.
10. Down go the Wolverines
It’s not going to get any bigger than Halloween at the Big House, and this is the year the Spartans pull off the upset for the first time since 2017. Michigan is going to be heavily favored, but both teams will be on the second week of working with a new QB, so neither offense will be fully operational. If there’s ever a year when the Spartans would win in Ann Arbor, it’s definitely 2020 inside an empty stadium.