Tradition Crystal Ball: Predicting every Michigan State football game in 2022
Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with Michigan State. We’ll stay with the B1G East all week. Next week, we’ll predict every game for every B1G West team. Previously: Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan
A year ago, people didn’t even know Tuck was comin’.
Mel Tucker had never coached a winning team. Not in a 5-game stint as the Jacksonville Jaguars interim head coach in 2011, not in his only season at Colorado in 2019, nor his COVID-shortened debut at Michigan State in 2020.
Tucker was known as a great defensive coordinator, save for the time he got stuck with Marc Trestman in Chicago. But as a head coach, there wasn’t much sample size to work with.
By the end of 2021, Tucker was among the hottest commodities in college football. Michigan State was so terrified to lose him that it gave him a 10-year, $95 million contract extension to fend off a potential poaching from LSU or USC.
Thanks in part to his liberal use of the transfer portal, the Spartans were college football’s best turnaround story in 2021, going 11-2 and finishing 9th in the country following their Peach Bowl win.
Now it’s time to show it wasn’t a fluke.
From worst to … where?
The must unusual aspect of Michigan State’s 2021 success was its ability to win while finishing last nationally in a major statistical category.
For the Spartans, that was pass defense. Michigan State allowed 324.8 yards per game through the air — a staggering 13 yards worse than 129th-place Duke’s average.
This Achilles heel was laid bare for the world to see against Ohio State. The Buckeyes zoomed out to a 49-0 halftime lead and passed for 449 yards in a hyped showdown that blew Michigan State out of the Playoff race.
Though it’s clearly not ideal, success is still possible with a porous pass defense. In 2018, Oklahoma made the CFP with the nation’s worst pass defense. And Michigan State’s ability to stop the run is a big reason why opponents felt compelled to constantly throw the ball. The Spartans were 15th nationally against the run.
It’s actually along the defensive front where Tucker believes he can improve Michigan State’s pass defense. Quarterbacks can’t throw deep if they’re on their backs.
This offseason Tucker hired Brandon Jordan in a full-time role as pass-rushing coach. Not defensive line coach or linebackers coach, but pass-rushing coach. And one of Jordan’s pupils, former UNLV edge Jacoby Windmon, could be this year’s version of Kenneth Walker III — the transfer player who transforms everything around him.
Speaking of Walker…
Replacing Kenneth Walker III will be …
Walker, an unheralded transfer from Wake Forest, was one of the revelatory players in all of college football last season. He accounted for 33.4% of Michigan State’s total offensive yardage last season prior to sitting out the Peach Bowl.
Walker could score from anywhere on the field, leading the nation with 21 rushes of 20 yards or more. His 5-touchdown performance to key a 16-point comeback win over Michigan will not soon be forgotten in East Lansing.
This is going to be a two-man job. And the transfer portal may have provided the necessary tandem. Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger and Colorado transfer Jarek Broussard will attempt to keep the Spartans’ ground game moving.
It certainly helps that Michigan State doesn’t have to solely rely on the run, either. As a sophomore, Payton Thorne set Michigan State’s single-season record with 27 touchdown passes. And he’ll still have the benefit of throwing to high school teammate Jayden Reed, who had 1,026 receiving yards last season.
Though not quite as daunting as replacing Walker, the Spartans will also have their work cut out replacing receiver Jalen Nailor, who averaged 18.8 yards per catch before being drafted by the Vikings.
Lucky, or just good?
Conventional wisdom dictates that the Spartans are due to slide back to Earth a bit this season, and not just because replacing Walker and Nailor is a tough task.
Michigan State and Nebraska inhabited opposite ends of the luck spectrum last year. The Cornhuskers notoriously finished 0-7 in 1-score games, including a 23-20 loss to the Spartans in which the Huskers outgained MSU by 188 yards.
The Spartans, on the other hand, were 4-0 in 1-score games. And that figure is truthfully 5-0, because Michigan State was clinging to a 3-point lead in the Peach Bowl until linebacker Cal Haladay sealed the deal with a pick-6 in the final 30 seconds.
If Nebraska and Michigan State’s luck were reversed last season — or even if you split the difference — the conversation about both teams would be very different.
But maybe it isn’t luck. Maybe it’s the difference in how a well-coached team and a poorly-coached team responds when the chips are down.
We’ll find out some answers to that theory this season.
Week 1: vs. Western Michigan (W)
Jayden Reed will set some sort of single-game school record against the team he began his college career with. The Crystal Ball suspects it will involve punt return yardage — or touchdowns.
Week 2: vs. Akron (W)
Michigan State won the 2 previous meetings between these programs by a combined 111 points. Those games took place in 1913 and 1914, so maybe the Zips have closed the gap a bit. But not enough to make this competitive.
Week 3: at Washington (L)
I don’t like it.
Cross-country trips will become the Big Ten norm in 2024, but for now it’s a shock to the system. Furthermore, the Spartans will see a familiar face in former Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who led his team to a 24-0 win over Michigan State in 2020. New Huskies coach Kalen DeBoer — formerly Penix’s coordinator at Indiana — is seeking a signature win. This will be it.
Week 4: vs. Minnesota (L)
I don’t like it.
The last thing you want to see after returning home from a cross-country trip is a physically demanding team like Minnesota. The Gophers are going to grind this down into a style the Spartans don’t want to play. PJ Fleck will avenge Western Michigan’s season-opening loss.
Week 5: at Maryland (W)
I like it better than going directly from Washington to Maryland.
This is going to be a test. Behind Ohio State, there won’t be a more potent passing attack in the Big Ten this season. And we know the details about MSU’s pass defense. But I believe this is the game where that unit takes a step forward, forcing a few key turnovers in a close win.
Week 6: vs. Ohio State (L)
It won’t be over before halftime like it was a year ago. But it might be over by the end of the third quarter. Ohio State is a dreadful matchup for Michigan State. The Buckeyes have outscored MSU 142-29 in the 3 meetings since Ryan Day took over in Columbus.
Week 7: vs. Wisconsin (W)
The upside to a blowout is that the starters should be well-rested for this matchup with Wisconsin. And Jalen Berger will have a thing or two to show Paul Chryst after getting kicked off the team last year. Expect his best performance of the season, as well as the best from Michigan State’s defense after being humbled the previous week.
Week 8: Bye
Week 9: at Michigan (L)
No bye week boost here — both teams are idle before the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy.
Anticipation will run high, because the Wolverines will be 7-0 and the Spartans have a chance to spoil. But Michigan will not forget the taste of squandering a 30-14 second-half lead to the Spartans last season. Look for Michigan to make a statement and win by 14 or more.
Week 10: at Illinois (W)
Don’t let 1 loss turn into 2. Tucker will have to hammer that point home, especially against an Illinois team that’s won 2 straight in this series. Look for a late, game-winning touchdown catch from Michigan State tight end Daniel Barker. Barker caught the game-winning touchdown for the Illini against the Spartans with 5 seconds left in 2019.
Week 11: vs. Rutgers (W)
Rutgers doesn’t have the offense to compete in this game.
Week 12: vs. Indiana (W)
Ahh, the Old Brass Spittoon. What a fine piece of hardware.
The Old Brass Spittoon is up for grabs for the 57th time today when @MSU_Football visits @HoosierFootball. pic.twitter.com/xuqZ4RM7OB
— Big Ten Football (@B1Gfootball) October 18, 2014
This is a game Indiana will desperately need in order to reach bowl eligibility. The Hoosiers will be driving for the win late when someone on Michigan State’s defense — Jacob Slade? Cal Haladay? Xavier Henderson? — steps up for a game-clinching swipe or stop.
Week 13: at Penn State (L)
Resting comfortably near the media room…. pic.twitter.com/wJfwF10XKR
— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) October 26, 2019
Behind the Stanley Cup, it is the most coveted trophy in all of sports*. And the Nittany Lions will be darned if they’re going to let the Spartans win it a second straight year. Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford will cap his career with a late 2-minute drill for the win.
*= statement has not been verified for accuracy
2022 Projection: 7-5 (5-4), 4th in B1G East
There’s a lot of space between Michigan State’s 2-5 finish in 2020 and last year’s 11-2 resurgence. And the Spartans will most certainly land somewhere within that real estate in 2022.
The 2021 Spartans were in a way reminiscent of Indiana’s 2020 team, bolting out of nowhere to late-season contention in the Big Ten East. But there is where Michigan State would like the analogy to end, because the 2021 Hoosiers toppled all the way to the bottom of the division.
The Spartans have the personnel to prove their 2021 was no fluke. Within the Big Ten, only Iowa and Ohio State return a higher percentage of last season’s production. That’s pretty impressive considering how much of that production Walker and Nailor accounted for.
Ohio State is the only “sure” loss on the schedule. And I have the Spartans going 4-4 in what I’d consider “toss-up” games, anticipating a return to average after running the table in those types of games last year. It’s possible injury luck could give Michigan State a losing record in those games. It’s also possible what happened last year can be bottled up and repeated.
But the most likely outcome is in the middle of those extremes.