Michigan State football: Taking another look at Mel Tucker's 2nd season with the Spartans
For a hot second, Michigan State looked like it was about to make a run at the 4-team College Football Playoff. For a quick moment, Mel Tucker was a shoo-in for national coach of the year and the Spartans were on the verge of something special, making history on seemingly a weekly basis.
Tucker was the fastest coach to land MSU in the Associated Press Top 10.
He had the school’s first legitimate, late-season Heisman contender in who knows how long? At the very least, if he’s not invited to the Heisman gala, Kenneth Walker III — who was once the No. 1 rusher in the nation — will be on the very-short list for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s top running back.
His 18 rushing touchdowns put him among MSU’s top-5 single-season performers (record 22 Javon Ringer/Jeremy Langford) and his 1,646 rushing yards were fourth-most in a season in MSU history, hopping mentor and Spartans legend Lorenzo White for that spot. Don’t forget a series record 5 rushing TDs during a 37-33 win over Michigan.
That was pretty impressive.
At one time, WR Jayden Reed was No. 1 in all-purpose yards. Fellow receiver Jalen Nailor wasn’t far behind on that list.
Quarterback Payton Thorne threw for 24 touchdowns, tied for second-most in a season at MSU and one shy of Kirk Cousins’ record of 25 touchdowns.
Tucker had a lot going on for MSU. His players were making headlines and stuffing stat sheets.
Records were to be broken, certain team-related accolades were to be achieved … and then the Spartans lost to Purdue and got laughed out of Columbus in about 17 minutes of game time vs. Ohio State.
The bubble burst.
Rebounding against Penn State was a must, and Tucker’s program was able to do that. Beating Michigan and having a 10-win season, capped by a hard-fought 30-27 home win vs. the Nittany Lions, was the best-case scenario for a team that was exposed by the Boilers and Buckeyes.
Tucker recently expressed his goals of winning national championships. It has to be a bit disappointing knowing that this season slipped away due to a couple of bad games. With the nation’s worst past defense, it’s a wonder how MSU remained in the Big Ten/CFP race so late into the season. Nonetheless, Tucker has the Spartans in great position. MSU obviously believes in him, recently inking him to a deal worth up to $95 million over a 10-year span.
Overall, it was a very good season for the Spartans. It was great for about the first two months, then Purdue happened. But MSU has its coach, and its coach has the football program regaining national prestige.
At 10-2, the Spartans are in line for a New Year’s 6 bowl — a huge leap beyond initial expectations, which had the Spartans hoping to qualify for any bowl game.
Tucker has talked about building a foundation. He knows he can’t live off the transfer pool every year. According to 247Sports, Michigan State has the No. 19-ranked 2022 class. Always important, winning the battle for the top in-state recruits is a must. Former coach Mark Dantonio took a hold on all the major metro areas in Michigan, often beating out UM for top talent.
In order to have similar results, Tucker has to win over those same talent-heavy pockets that were so good to Dantonio.
As of right now, the Spartans have four of the top 10-ranked players in the state of Michigan, so Tucker is certainly on the right track. Win in-state recruiting, beat Michigan, compete for Big Ten titles — he’s following the same path that led Dantonio to a decade of decadence.
The 2021 season wasn’t just a nice rebound to 2020. It wasn’t just a 10-2 finish, or a best-case scenario after falling out of the CFP/B1G title races. No, it was a major step for Tucker and for MSU’s program as a whole. Crunch the numbers. Undefeated at home for the first time since 2015. The first MSU coach to start 2-0 vs. Michigan. All of the single-season milestones reached by so many star players this season.
Yeah, this wasn’t just a solid Year 2; it was a statement and foreshadowing of a grand vision forecast by Tucker.