The Michigan State Spartans appear to be everyone’s Big Ten sweetheart pick to finish third in 2011. Whereas the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Wisconsin Badgers are widely regarded as the class of the Big Ten, and the Michigan Wolverines and Penn State Nittany Lions are expected to flounder, the Spartans fall into that unique comfort zone where they’re not a threat to challenge for anything major, but rather are sort of expected to fly under the radar en route to another solid campaign a la 2010.
Hate to break it to you but, it’s not going to happen.
Last year, despite their 11-2 mark and share of the Big Ten title, the Spartans got exposed for the pretenders (not contenders) that they were in a 49-7 embarrassment of a defeat to the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2011 Capital One Bowl.
The game was largely indicative of what many believed all along – that the Spartans benefited the entire year from a weakened Big Ten and a series of runs that were unlikely to repeat when it mattered most.
This year, Michigan State’s luck appears to have run out. On the agenda in front of them are games against the likes of a severely underrated Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Iowa. If the Spartans can escape this year with anything less than four losses, the season should automatically be deemed a success.
Many will point to all of the returning talent that Michigan State boasts this season, particularly with quarterback Kirk Cousins and tailbacks Edwin Baker and Leveon Bell. And while those three pieces coupled with the Spartans’ undeniably deep wide receiving core should mean good news as far as putting points on the board, there are serious protection concerns that need to be taken into account.
Michigan State is essentially reconfiguring their entire offensive line after losing three starters, and in a conference which now boasts the defensive mavens that are Nebraska and Wisconsin, that uncertainty could mean big trouble.
Defensively, Michigan State needs to compensate for the loss of linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. Still with the likes of likely first-rounder Jerel Worthy and defensive end Tyler Hoover on the roster, along with rising star cornerback Johnny Adams and free safety Trenton Robinson, it’s not too far-fetched to assume that the Spartans will be solid on this side of the ball.
Although a number of Big Ten teams (most notably Nebraska) face tough schedules this coming year, the Huskers can balance that out by the talent that they have on their roster. Tough teams playing tough games is something that tends to offset. Michigan State, however, is a run-of-the-mill group with a tough schedule – something that spells bad news for the program in the foreseeable future.
When you mix in all of the Spartans’ existing concerns with the unrealistic expectations levied upon them in the offseason, you can see why failure suddenly becomes a very real possibility.
Spartan fans should revel in 2010’s success (except for that shellacking from Alabama) and enjoy the memories, because Michigan State will take a very noticeable step back in 2011.