Mel Tucker’s first year as coach at Michigan State, going 2-5 in 2020, was a nightmare. His second season was much better, notching a second straight win over Michigan and finishing the year at 11-2 after downing Pitt in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta.

His third season?

Well, we’re about to find out just how hard the ‘Tuck Comin’‚ÄČ” Spartans will be this fall.

Hardly anyone expected Tucker, who had a predictable first season replacing a legend, to catapult the Spartans back into the Big Ten spotlight so soon — but he’s done so with an expectation-shattering 2021 and incredible success through the transfer portal.

Will he place the Spartans higher than they were during the Mark Dantonio era? Was 2021 merely a glimpse into the future, or was it just a stroke of great luck? The answer will reveal itself this season, starting with a Friday night opener Sept. 2 vs. Western Michigan in East Lansing.

As the season approaches, the anticipation builds — so set’s take a look at some dream/disaster scenarios for the Spartans, who were a late-season contender for the Big Ten crown this past season and a possible contender entering this fall.

DREAM SCENARIOS

Mega year from Payton Thorne

For any team hoping to contend for a conference title, steady quarterback play is a necessary ingredient. In 2021, Spartans QB Payton Thorne put up numbers that could project to single-season records this fall. We’re talking matching or bettering the likes of Kirk Cousins, Brian Lewerke and Connor Cook, to name a few.

With 27 passing touchdowns, Thorne set a single-season record at Michigan State this past fall. However, he could end up setting the record for most passing yards in a season this year; his 3, 240 yards in 2021 were the third-most in program history.

Owning both of those records would solidify Thorne’s legacy in East Lansing. Of course, stats are just a byproduct of overall team success. If Thorne were to even get near having another 3,200-yard season, it’d mean that everything was clicking and the Spartans were rolling through opponents.

Thorne was overlooked last year because transfer RB Kenneth Walker III commanded center stage. However, Thorne is capable of being the leading man, and he’ll get a chance to prove that in just a few weeks.

Broussard/Berger pan out

Everyone knows about Walker’s performance in 2021. Conversely, everyone is well aware that the chances of another Spartans running back putting up those numbers this year are slim to none.

Michigan State may not need another RB to go off like Walker, but it will need one to be a consistent contributor/borderline star in order to chase a Big Ten title. Colorado transfer Jarek Broussard and Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger could end up being Tucker’s second and third transfers to shine at the position. Each player has been heavily praised through spring and fall camps.

Broussard, the 2020 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, played for Tucker at Colorado. Berger, being from the Big Ten, is familiar with the style of league play. Each back has things working in his favor.

If one, or both, have outstanding years, the Spartans will be in excellent shape when it comes to competing for a B1G banner.

Offensive line doesn’t struggle

Offensive lines have to be the backbone of the operation, or things won’t work — that goes for all teams, not just Michigan State.

In terms of experience, the Spartans enter 2022 pretty thin in the trenches — so, there will be one of two outcomes: 1. The group quickly comes together and doesn’t become a weakness. 2. The group struggles and the Spartans trudge through the season without adequate pass and run support.

The Spartans lost 5 veterans of the offensive line following the 2021 season.

Beat Michigan

Well, yeah … right? Even if the Spartans don’t measure up to 11-2 this season, their season could be considered semi-successful if they beat Michigan. A win would give Tucker his third in a row and make him the only MSU coach to win his first 3 vs. Michigan.

Three in a row would also mark the first time Harbaugh lost a trio of consecutive games to the Spartans.

It’ll come to a head Oct. 29 in Ann Arbor. By then, Michigan could be undefeated, while the Spartans — who would have already played Ohio State and Wisconsin — could be looking to restore some momentum after a pair of (possibly tough) losses. Or MSU could end up winning and be on the prowl for more spoils in the form of a win over the Wolverines.

B1G title/CFP

Prior to their 40-29 loss at Purdue, the Spartans were on the brink to being a legitimate B1G and CFP contender. For any team coming off an 11-2 season, the obvious dream is to win the league and qualify for the 4-team championship postseason.

MSU doesn’t come off as a dangerous team in that regard, but hey — it can dream, right?

DISASTER SCENARIOS

Offensive line fails miserably

It’d be a dream if the offensive line became a strength, or was at least serviceable; and it’d be a disaster if it stumbled and became a liability. That was easy, right? Without a sturdy OL, there won’t be any gaudy stats from Thorne, Broussard or Berger, therefore rendering the Spartans harmless in the eyes of opponents.

Jayden Reed falls off

After flirting with the NFL, Reed opted to return to East Lansing for one more spin with the Spartans. As one of the nation’s top WRs and an elite player in the Big Ten, he’ll be expected to be a dynamic threat in both the passing and return games this fall. Granted, the Spartans have other options, such as Tre Mosley, but Reed is the prize of the WR group and will likely be Thorne’s top target throughout the season.

If none of that ends up being the case, the Spartans will be in a world of trouble. Thorne-to-Reed has to be a consistent threat every Saturday if MSU wants to win a Big Ten championship.

Secondary continues to stumble

The only way is up for the Spartans secondary, which was the worst pass-defending group in major college football this past fall. To put it simply, the Spartans were horrible. Defensive backs such as Charles Brantley, who had a big INT vs. Michigan in 2021, and Chester Kimbrough, who was often victimized by opposing quarterbacks last season, have to continue to improve in order for the Spartans to effectively defend the pass.

Other transfers don’t shine

Broussard and Berger aren’t the only transfers in East Lansing.

Offensive lineman Brian Greene (Washington State) could be a key contributor this year, and so could DB Ameer Speed (Georgia) — MSU needs some help in the defensive backfield.

Defensive end Khris Bogle (Florida) might add some pep up from the edge, while linebackers Aaron Brule (Mississippi State) and Jacoby Windmon (UNLV) could help with pass-rush and run-stopping duties. All three players are well-equipped for the Spartans’ 4-2-5 defensive scheme.

If these players don’t end up producing, there could be a few questions left to be answered. Did Tucker get the wrong guys? Has his luck with the portal quickly fizzled and faded?

Loss to Washington

On Sept. 17, Michigan State plays at Washington. It’s a non-conference road game that will start at 7:30 p.m. (PST). Factor in travel and time difference, and it could be a rough go for the Spartans. Also, consider this: The game vs. the Huskies will be MSU’s first real test of the season, so a loss could certainly deflate morale as MSU prepares for the Big Ten schedule.

Early losses don’t always ruin seasons filled with high expectations, but they certainly aren’t something that teams welcome. Losing in Seattle could possibly trigger an early tailspin for the Spartans and severely diminish confidence.