Reality Bites: Skeptic's guide to Michigan State Spartans football in 2022
So Michigan State is back, huh? Coach Mel Tucker has the Spartans on track to surpass the accomplishments from the Mark Dantonio era, or so they say.
Following an 11-2 season punctuated by a Peach Bowl win over Pitt, Michigan State could be primed to make another run at a Big Ten championship — a race in which it was a full-on contender until a late-season loss to Purdue derailed — get it, railroad joke — its plans. Carried by running back Kenneth Walker III, the Spartans were once considered a dark-horse candidate for the College Football Playoff last season.
But that was then, and this is now.
Walker is in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks and the Spartans are steadily looking for their next star ball-carrier. Jalen “Speedy” Nailor is with the Minnesota Vikings, so there goes 6 receiving touchdowns off the books.
Metrics suggest a downtrend
Sure, the Spartans were a legitimate threat in 2021, but the most recent predictions from ESPN’s FPI aren’t so kind — the metrics project MSU as an 8-4 team this fall. Honestly, that’s not an overly negative prediction, considering that the Spartans don’t have a ton of depth on the o-line and just lost two superstars on offense in Walker and Nailor.
Pre-Dantonio, 8-4 would have been acceptable for most Spartans fans. Then Dantonio went on to post the best seasons in school history, notching 5 seasons with 11-plus wins. However, statistics, history and trends suggest that MSU won’t enjoy another double-digit win season this fall.
And 8-4 might even be an optimistic prediction. Remember those 7-5 and 6-6 seasons in the ’90s? What about the John L. Smith era in the early 2000s, which was anything but successful. While Tucker seemingly has things under control, the history books suggest that this season could be anything but legendary for MSU.
Per the FPI, MSU has a 3.5% chance to win division, 2.2% to win league and 1.8% chance to make the CFP. Enjoy another so-so season, Sparty — it’s right around the corner.
We don’t have to say it, right? But we will.
No division title. No Big Ten title. No CFP appearance, which would be the second in school history (2015).
Double-digit wins? Don’t make me laugh
To piggyback on the point made above, MSU hasn’t had back-to-back double-digit winning seasons since 2014 and 2015. Those teams were loaded with superstars such as QB Connor Cook. Is Payton Thorne, the current starter, anything like Cook? Well, we’ll see this fall.
Losing to Michigan is likely.
No Michigan State coach has ever won their first 3 meetings with Michigan. Tucker has 2 in a row, but that streak will likely come to a screeching halt this season for a couple of reasons: Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has never lost 3 straight to the Spartans and the Spartans haven’t won 3 in a row vs. UM since 2013-2015.
Spartans fans, I know you want to believe that Tucker has this in-state rivalry in a stranglehold, but let’s be real: He capitalized on a 2020 season that nobody cared about and needed every bounce possible to beat the Wolverines in East Lansing this past fall.
Three in a row? Don’t count on it. That midseason duel with Ohio State could very well be the backbreaker for the Spartans.
Thorne won’t touch 27 TDs (school single-season record)
Surpassing legends such as Connor Cook and Kirk Cousins, and high achiever Jeff Smoker, Payton Thorne put himself atop the single-season passing touchdown record book with 27 TD tosses this past fall; he was 156 yards shy of setting a single-season passing yards record in East Lansing, held by green and white fan Smoker (if you know, you know), who had 3,395 yards in 2003 compared to Thorne’s 3,240 this past season.
I’m sorry — but not sorry — for the Smoker wisecracks. Couldn’t help it.
Anyway, Thorne just lost Nailor and will have to rely on Jayden Reed, or so it appears, in order to complete big plays in 2022. Thorne could easily eclipse 20 TDs, even reaching as many as 22-24, but he’s not going to sniff 27 TD passes this season.
Cook and Smoker are the only Spartans QBs to have multiple 20-plus passing TD seasons, so saying Thorne will top that mark would be saying that he’d enter statistic royalty at MSU — not likely, especially if MSU goes 8-4 as ESPN FPI predicts.
Running game will struggle
Let’s make one thing clear: Jalen Berger isn’t Kenneth Walker III. Berger, a transfer from Wisconsin, is a good running back — but to predict him to have the greatest season of any transfer in portal history is absurd. His career stats barely touch a 2-game stretch for Walker, who was the best running back in college football last season.
Berger will definitely be the go-to RB, there’s no questioning that, but he’ll be lucky to approach 1,000 yards — let alone Walker’s 1,636 yards posted in 2021.
I hope I didn’t hurt any feelings, but reality is reality — and reality bites.