I’ve asked several of my Michigan State friends what MSU has to do this year to match last year’s tremendous effort that netted an 11-win regular season and their first share of a Big 10 title in 20 years. The best answer I received was an acerbic response noting that they would have to win two games by fooling teams on fake kicks, like a year ago. Funny, for sure, but it also ilustrates how hard it is to win double digit games in college football and the foolishness in expecting it to happen again. The Spartans could be a better team this year, but a harder schedule, combined perhaps with the inability to pull any magic rabbits out of their fake punt hat, could conspire against MSU and lead to a significantly worse record than a year ago. Certainly oddsmakers are prepped for the possibility. And the public might be fretting over MSU based on the illusion of last impressions and the bowl game blowout loss to Alabama. Despite ripping off 11 regular season wins a year ago, Books have set the over/under for 2011 regular season wins for Michigan State at a paltry 7.5.
All discussion on the Spartans begins with their schedule, which is significant upgrade from a year ago. Last year, MSU didnt play Ohio State at all. This year, they play the Bucks in Columbus, albeit it will be the final game that 4 OSU offensive starters will be suspended for their parts in TatGate. The Notre Dame game is in South Bend, the Spartans have to travel to Iowa City for a second year in a row after being woodshedded at Kinnick by the Hawks a year ago. Oh, and there is also a trip to Nebraska. While they get home games with Michigan and Wisconsin, there isnt an MSU fan out there who realizes their schedule is much harder this year, making for some apprehensive excitement for the 2011 Green and White. On one hand, when your expected trap games include the likes of Florida Atlantic, Central Michigan and Indiana, there are a lot of wins to be had. But that just shows the rest of their schedule is full of slobber knockers, rivalry blood fests and clashes between Big 10 titans that could go, at best for MSU, either way.
Here is the thing with MSU’s slate. They are going to be an underdog in several of those games. Indeed, oddsmakers have already made them dogs in their games at Notre Dame, +7; at Nebraska, +11; vs Wisconsin +3; and at Iowa +1. There isnt a line for their game in Columbus yet, but you have to think that unless the Luke Fickell Era is a total collapse in September that the Buckeyes will be chalk. (The Spartans are -4.5 chalk at home against Michigan, by the way.) Why do I bring these lines up in discussion on how many wins MSU will end up with this season? Because the Spartans never win when they are an underdog. When installed as an underdog, the Spartans are just 45-92 straight up since 1985.That’s a 32.8-percent winning mark, less than 1 out of every three games. By comparison, Michigan is 24-30-1–45 percent–in the same time frame and that’s with the 4-13 from the last three disastrous Rodriguez seasons plunging those figures. The numbers for MSU have been trending downward the last decade or so. Since 2003, their record as a dog is just above 25 percent at 13-34. Under Dantonio, they fall further to 4-14, about 22 percent. Dantonio has done a lot of good in East Lansing, from the near abolition of the Sparty No! moment, a Big 1o title, three wins in a row over Michigan, making potluck dinners exciting again in East Lansing and so on. But, he hasnt been able to get the Spartans to beat the teams they shouldnt. Frankly, I am not even impressed with most of the ‘upset wins’ in the Dantonio Era. In 2007, they ‘upset’ a Purdue team destined for the Motor City Bowl with their .500 record and a Penn State team still hampered by the words ‘Anthony Morelli is your starting quarterback.’ A year ago, they ‘upset’ a beyond vulnerable Michigan squad and their perpetually bent and broken defense. Their home win as +3 over Wisconsin last year was legit, for sure, but the bottomline is going into Lincoln, Columbus, South Bend and Iowa City and winning as an underdog are taller orders for MSU and something the program has never proved it could do with any consistency.
There is a ton to like about this Spartan team. They have the most dangerous set of tailbacks in the league. Kirk Cousins remains the quarterback. He’s throwing to an underrated, experienced set of targets. They are deep along the defensive line, anchored by all conference contender Jerel Worthy. In Trenton Robinson and Johnny Adams, they have two of the best defensive backs in the league. Keshawn Martin is an explosive weapon in the return game. I’m excited about their replacement starters on defense and the whole unit looks ready to get it on. Linebacker is an obvious question mark with the departures of Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, but man have the Spartans recruited well on this front. Max Bullough, a 2010 4-star recruit and Denicos Allen, a redshirt sophomore who made a handful of big plays for MSU a year ago, combined with holdover Chris Norman still form a very good, if not green on the starting front, Big 10 LB corps.
The real concern is the offensive line. Replacing three starters, the unit will be inconsistent and enough of a monkey wrench for the offense to keep MSU from repeating its dream season of 2010. They are breaking in a pair of new tackles. One is a Dan France who for the previous two years has played defense. Generally speaking, its not a good thing when somebody flips sides of the ball and becomes an instant starter. The Spartans are doing the same with Blake Treadwell, but despite trying him at various positions on the line, he cant find the first team. A lot of MSU fans will highlight this as a sign of depth, but I am dubious of that assertion. When your starting lineup and two deep relies so heavily on transfers from the defense, redshirt freshmen and incoming JC recruits, thats a sign that the unit isnt ready for wear more than anything else. I do like the Skylar Burkland kid at the other tackle. The redshirt frosh was a bigtime recruit and has a chance to be a whale of a player. But, I also recall Taylor Lewan’s redshirt freshmen season for Michigan a year ago. He showed us all his potential, but also saw his game betrayed by inconsistent play, missed assignments and bad penalties. The same inconsistencies will hit Burkland. He will make mistakes. Will they happen in big spots like some of Lewan’s? Will they kill Kirk Cousins in pass protection? It’s enough of a question mark for me to slow any roll on pronouncing with surety any win total. The offensive line will have enough matchup problems against the Notre Dame, Ohio State and Nebraska fronts that, on the road, it could be enough to make a difference between winning and losing for MSU.
So, enough of the dime store roster analysis. The question at hand is, will MSU go Over/Under 7.5 wins? Sheepishly, my answer is I dont really know. My gut tells me this is a quality side. My brain asks me if I am ready to trust Sparty to pull out wins when they aren’t supposed to. My heart is pretty sure its not up for that kind of Green and White rollercoaster. I can take it for three hours a time on individual game plays, but I dont know about buckling in for three whole months.
Let’s play this out a bit. Let’s give them layups against Youngstown State, Florida Atlantic and Central Michigan in September. I’m also willing to book home wins over Michigan, Minnesota and Indiana. That’s six. Are there at least two more wins on the slate to hit the over? There could be. It’s within their ability, at least on paper. I fear for Cousins life against the Black Shirts of Nebraska, so we’re chalking that up as a loss. You can never assume a MSU win over OSU, especially in Columbus, I dont care how down the expectations may be for the scandal-riddled Buckeyes. To be fair, lets put ND in the loss column. That means two wins out of Wisconsin, at Iowa and at Northwestern. The game against the Wildcats is the regular season finale. It would not suprise me if the Spartans are sitting on seven wins going into that game. If so, and you have either the over or the under, then that game becomes prime hedge bet material. Sometimes thats the mark of a great future bet, one that gets you to the very end with a good chance to win or to hedge the bet to at least come out even or minimize financial risk. I certainly could see MSU overachieving and winning at least a couple in those underdog spots. But, I could also see them pulling out zero or just one win from those games, and, if I squint hard enough, I could see them yakking the Michigan game. The November schedule does allow for a winning run to catch up on wins if need be.
I feel if I keep writing I might talk myself into something. I’m going to take the weekend to think about this and other NCAA win totals. We’ll have formal picks on this front next week before the games begin.