Michigan State football: Best-case, worst-case scenarios for 2021
For Mel Tucker, his 1st year at the helm of the Michigan State football team didn’t quite go as planned. In his defense, there were very few teams that had things go “as planned” during the COVID-disrupted season. Tucker arrived in East Lansing late in the recruiting process, and the Spartans were hit by COVID-19 early in training camp.
With a “normal” offseason now under his belt, the question is: how will Tucker deal with the changes in the roster? MSU saw a lot of roster upheaval during the offseason, as there are 40 players on the 2021 roster who weren’t with the team last year.
A look at some of the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Spartans are below.
Best: Thorne and Walker III boost the offense
While Tucker has yet to name a starter at quarterback, Payton Thorne is the clear choice for the future of the program. Temple transfer Anthony Russo could only be the answer for this season, with just a year of eligibility left, so Thorne taking the snaps and clicking with the offense would be the best thing for a rebuilding Spartans offense.
Add to that Wake Forest transfer running back Kenneth Walker III, who put up over 1,000 yards for the Demon Deacons last season and would still have the ability to be around for another season. The offense could begin to show signs of life after its recent struggles.
Worst: No chemistry with the new faces
As mentioned above, there are a lot of new faces in East Lansing this fall. While some may call it a rebuild, team chemistry is going to be an issue. On the defensive side of the ball, the linebackers are going to be needing to do some reloading.
Antjuan Simmons was last season’s leading tackler, and after opting out of his last year of eligibility, went undrafted in last spring’s NFL Draft and is now coaching high school football in his hometown of Ann Arbor. That leaves the leadership job to Noah Harvey. A starter last season, Harvey is solid, but certainly not the caliber of Simmons.
The biggest overhaul comes in the defensive backfield with Shakur Brown off to the NFL and the addition of 4 new transfers. That leaves safety Xavier Henderson with the daunting task of bringing everyone together. If the chemistry doesn’t jell on defense, it’ll be another long season for Tucker and the Spartans faithful.
Best: Kenneth Walker III gains 1,000 yards
This season’s Spartans running back corps should be much improved, and transfer Kenneth Walker III will be taking the lead. Connor Heyward, Jordon Simmons and Harold Joiner will be in backup roles and provide depth, but Walker will be the story.
The offensive line is very experienced, with upperclassmen throughout the depth chart, and while they struggled in 2020, with a somewhat normal offseason and ample time to jell, the line could come together to provide an experienced and previously successful running back such as Walker the opportunity to have an explosive season.
Worst: Quarterback by committee
As mentioned above, Tucker has yet to name a starter for the opener against Northwestern. It has been suggested, and not refuted, that the possibility exists that there will be no clear starter, that Thorne and Russo will share duties depending upon the situation and matchups.
For better or worse, there needs to be a clearly defined starter, and most importantly, a leader. A team that is looking to rebuild needs leadership, and having the offensive signals called by a different voice, back and forth each week, won’t do the job. Should Tucker want to focus on the win in front of him, that’s fine, but he will need to choose between that and looking forward to building a cohesive offensive unit for this season and the next, win or lose.
Best: Maybe a .500 record
The Spartans should start out 5-1, as season-opener opponent Northwestern just lost a key member of its offensive attack to an injury and will be much weaker than originally anticipated, and Youngstown State, well, is Youngstown State. The trip to Miami in Week 3 should end in disaster, but the next 3 games could easily fall into the win column — against Nebraska, Rutgers and Western Kentucky.
But the fun ends there. The remainder of the schedule is riddled with AP Top 25 teams, half of them to be exact, and unless an upset finds its way into those 6 games, the last half of the season will likely be a slippery slope. As we know, anything is possible during the in-state rivalry game against Michigan, and maybe Maryland will have trouble on the road and the Spartans can steal one of those games to finish even on the year.
Worst: Just as many wins as 2020
Tucker’s first season in East Lansing resulted in just 2 wins over the 7 games that he and the Spartans managed to play. Only 2 games in 2021 are what would be considered “sure wins” — non-conference opponents Youngstown State and Western Kentucky should be locks. The array of Top 25 teams they face won’t make things easy, and when a pair of struggling conference teams square off, things can go either way. If they go the other way for Tucker and company, the 2nd-year coach could end up with as many wins in his second season as he did in his first.