Tradition Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Michigan State football in 2020
Editor’s note: Our Crystal Ball series continues in the Big Ten East with Michigan State. Coming Thursday: Indiana.
Michigan State’s program was turned upside down when Mark Dantonio abruptly retired on Feb. 4 — well after the coaching carousel part of the off-season had passed. It put Michigan State in the near-impossible situation of finding a head coach and an assistant pool befitting of the only non-Ohio State Big Ten program to reach the College Football Playoff.
The program is in a much different place now. Athletic director Bill Beekman scrambled to lure Mel Tucker from Colorado after just one season — a rather remarkable hire considering the circumstances. He also gave him an absurd amount of money ($5.5 million), but he did what he had to do.
Tucker inherits a program in transition, a program that is rebuilding. However you want to frame it, Dantonio didn’t leave the Spartans in a great spot. There are serious questions at quarterback and on the offensive line, there is a lack of depth at most positions and there is zero momentum on the recruiting trail to get this turned around. Tucker has his work cut out for him. What does that mean for 2020?
2019 record: 7-6 (4-5), 5th in B1G East
It’s not about wins and losses
With limited practice time in the offseason, who knows what Michigan State will look like this season? It’s an impossible situation for Tucker and this new staff that just arrived in February. Playing in the Big Ten East Division that features a few winnable games but mostly sure losses, it’s important that Michigan State not get hung up on its record. Because as you’ll see below, I don’t think it’s going to be good.
The 2020 season is all about improvement for the Spartans and making sure they are a better team in December than they were in October. It’s important that Tucker build momentum for his first recruiting class and 2021. It’s going to be very difficult to judge Tucker on this season. On the bright side, maybe that means all the pressure is off? It helps that Michigan State is a basketball school and the fan base can turn its attention to hoops (provided there is a season) before long.
Still, a program that won double-digit games six times last decade probably doesn’t like the idea of finishing near the bottom of the Big Ten. But that’s probably going to be reality.
Don’t worry about that. Senior Jacub Panasiuk, who was one of the top-graded edge rushers from Pro Football Focus, opted out of this season, but he’s not going to the NFL — he wants to redshirt and come back. He could go to the NFL, but he wants to be back in 2021, which shows he thinks the Spartans can build something. That reaffirms that the Spartans have to make 2020 about laying the foundation for this new era.
Who is the QB of the future?
Since this season isn’t about wins and losses, I wouldn’t be overly concerned about who Michigan State’s starting quarterback is against Minnesota. It will probably be Rocky Lombardi, considering he has the most experience.
Perhaps the most important thing for Tucker and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson is figuring out who is going to be the QB in 2021 and beyond. I am fairly confident that Lombardi, though just a junior, will not be that guy. He has completed only 42.9 percent of his 175 career passes, with 3 touchdown passes and 5 interceptions.
Is it redshirt sophomore Theo Day, the No. 17 pro-style QB in the class of 2018? In high school, he was ranked ahead of Artur Sitkowski (the likely starter at Rutgers), Spencer Petras (the likely starter at Iowa), Michael Penix Jr. (the starter at Indiana) and Jack Plummer (the likely starter at Purdue). All of those guys except Petras have started games by now, but Day has only appeared in one game, completing 2 of 3 pass attempts last year against Penn State.
Is it redshirt Payton Thorne, the No. 26 dual-threat QB in the 2019 class? He has strong football bloodlines (his grandfather is a longtime high school and college coach and his dad won a Division III national title as a head coach last year), which certainly bodes well for a QB. He also was high school teammates with Jayden Reed, who will likely be Michigan State’s top wideout.
Unless someone really runs with the job, I would expect to see all three QBs at some point this season.
Identify players to build around
In addition to the QB of the future, Tucker and his staff need to identify other young players who can make an impact — and get them experience. That should be a big priority on the offensive line, which has been an area where the Spartans have struggled in recent years. It also needs to be a priority on a defense that returns just two starters.
There will be ample opportunity for fresh evaluations from a new staff and for players to earn playing time. The crazy thing is that with such limited practice time, Michigan State’s staff probably doesn’t know who those players will be just yet. And who could blame them?
Week 1: vs. Rutgers (W)
Michigan State and Rutgers should both be committed to building for the future, but boy, it sure would be nice to start 1-0. This is Michigan State’s best chance for a win as Rutgers has struggled mightily in recent years and is also breaking in a new coach in Greg Schiano. They should be able to get it, especially at home. This is much more ideal than opening up with Minnesota, as the previous schedule dictated.
Week 2: vs. Michigan (L)
Once upon a time, it was a big deal when Michigan State got to host Michigan two years in a row. And the Spartans put a beating on the Wolverines both times. Sadly for Michigan State fans, what goes around comes around. It will be a second straight ugly loss in the Big House, and reality will set in that this is going to be a long season, even if it’s only eight games.
Week 3: at Iowa (L)
Iowa is going to be around where it seems to always be — right around the top 20-25 teams in the country, with a solid offense and very good defense. Side note: Since Michigan State beat Iowa in the 2015 Big Ten Championship game, the Spartans have one season with eight or more wins, while the Hawkeyes have four such seasons.
Week 4: vs. Indiana (L)
To beat Indiana, you’re going to have to put up a decent amount of points and potentially win a shootout, like the Spartans did last year in their 40-31 victory. This year’s Michigan State offense is not equipped to do that.
Week 5: at Maryland (L)
Mike Locksley has quietly assembled some talent at Maryland, if you haven’t been paying attention. And the Terps have more of it than the Spartans. I know Maryland likes to only win in the first two weeks of the season, but I think it gets one here against Michigan State. I’ll take Maryland in a close one.
Week 6: vs. Northwestern (L)
Northwestern will likely be among the most improved teams in the country. Maybe Michigan State will be in that category for 2021.
Week 7: vs. Ohio State (L)
This was going to be ugly no matter what, but it sounds like Ohio State is on a mission this season. There’s a chance the Buckeyes may take their foot off the gas a little with Michigan up the following week, but that means only losing by 4 scores instead of 6.
Week 8: at Penn State (L)
Even without fans, Michigan State will be up against it in Happy Valley. Penn State is loaded with blue-chip talent all over the field despite not having Micah Parsons, and Tucker’s first season will end in a whimper.
2020 projection: 1-7, 6th in B1G East
It’s ugly and certainly not what Spartans fans want to see in a record, but it’s better than the season getting canceled, right? Patience, Sparty. Patience.