Despite dominating wins in its first 2 games, Michigan State was a 6-point underdog as it traveled to Miami to take on the Hurricanes. The Spartans clearly hadn’t yet shaken the stigma from 2020’s disappointing 2-5 season.

But these aren’t the 2020 Spartans.

After head coach Mel Tucker dipped heavily into the NCAA Transfer Portal over the offseason, the 41 new faces and the holdovers have officially shaken off the past. The Spartans are now officially on the radar. With their 38-21 thrashing of the then-No. 24 Canes, the now-No. 20 Spartans have given notice that they’re the real deal.

Tucker wins the Transfer Portal lottery

Throughout the 2020 season, not one Michigan State running back managed to tally a rushing touchdown. For a school with names like Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker in its heritage, that’s a problem.

While the focus in the past has always been on recruiting for working on problem areas, Tucker had the ability to tap the portal to meet those needs, immediately. Of the 41 new players on the Spartans roster this season, 20 are transfers — 17 from FBS programs, including 14 from Power 5 schools.

The big moment came in January, when Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III came to town.

Walker made his presence known on the first play from scrimmage in 2021, breaking for a 75-yard touchdown run against Northwestern. He finished the game with 264 yards and 4 touchdowns. After Walker carried 27 times for 172 yards in the win over the Canes, his 493 yards on 57 carries so far this season leads all B1G rushers — almost a full 100 yards ahead of Michigan’s Blake Corum’s 407 yards.

Also making the trip to East Lansing via the portal was graduate transfer Anthony Russo. Coming to the Spartans after starting at Temple last season, Russo has a total of 31 games under his belt for the Owls, throwing for 6,287 yards and 44 touchdowns.

Russo and redshirt-sophomore Payton Thorne were in a highly publicized battle for the top spot all throughout camp, with Thorne getting the nod just hours before the first snap against Northwestern to open the season.

So why did Russo’s arrival make an impact?

The entrance of Russo to the quarterback room created the battle for the starting spot behind center. With last year’s season-opening starter at QB, Rocky Lombardi, leaving for Northern Illinois (in case anyone forgot?), the starting spot was up for grabs. While Thorne took snaps after Lombardi was benched last season, he struggled with turnovers and inconsistency, and wasn’t a lock for the top spot heading into this season.

While Russo has been relegated to the backup role, there is little question that the experienced quarterback battling head-to-head with Throne throughout camp can be credited with his emergence as one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the nation after 3 games. Thorne has 9 touchdowns, a 62.3 completion percentage, and his 180.1 efficiency rating tops all B1G quarterbacks.

An unusual solution to an unusual problem

Tucker was hired from Colorado to take over for Spartans coach Mark Dantonio, who abruptly retired in February of 2020 after spending 13 seasons in East Lansing and winning 3 B1G championships. The timing of Tucker’s takeover created a host of problems, most notably having the pandemic hit just a month later. March saw players and coaches sent home, giving the new coach little chance to evaluate his new roster.

Several players opted out due to COVID-19 concerns, and MSU entered the delayed 2020 season with the same roster it had in the spring and little preparation for their new leader.

After their 2-5 finish in 2020, along with his recruiting efforts Tucker took to the transfer portal to try and make an immediate impact on the Spartans roster.

It worked.

Through his 10 games at the helm of the Spartans bench, Tucker is 5-5, with 3 of those victories coming against AP Top 25 teams. Also of note is that 2 of those 3 victories over ranked teams have come on the road, and since the transfer portal infusion, the Spartans have yet to even come close to a loss.