Western Michigan is headed to Michigan State for both teams' season opener. The Spartans come into the season 15th in the nation in preseason polls and with high expectations after an 11-2 2021 campaign. The Broncos start the season with unanswered questions about their offense.
Michigan State and the Broncos lost some key pieces from their 2021 teams. What better way to get the Michigan State perspective than to ask The Only Colors some questions? To prepare for the week one matchup, I reached out to Ryan O’Bleness (@ryanobleness) and he provided some insight to the Michigan State program.
1. Michigan State had a fantastic eleven-win 2021 season. During the offseason, they brought in eight players via the transfer portal. More than anyone in the Big Ten East except Indiana. Where does that take the Spartans in 2022?
Michigan State also hit the transfer portal hard during the 2021 offseason, bringing in 19 total players (15 scholarship players), including running back Kenenth Walker III. A few of these instant-impact transfers, most notably Walker, were a big part of MSU’s turnaround and 11-2 season complete with a New Year’s Six bowl victory in the Peach Bowl. This year, Mel Tucker and his staff attacked the portal hard once again, but limited the number to eight players (well, nine if you include the recent addition of walk-on kicker Ben Patton from Auburn).
Each of the transfers could play a role this season, either as a starter or a rotational player. When comparing 2022 to 2021, though, Michigan State is no longer going to sneak up on anybody like the Spartans did last year.
I think the depth from top to bottom is actually better for Michigan State in 2022. Of course, MSU lost its superstar in Walker, lost a “Speedy” playmaker in wide receiver Jalen Nailor, lost several experienced offensive linemen and lost its two most experienced defensive ends from last year’s team. However, Michigan State brought in two talented transfer running backs in Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) and Jarek Broussard (Colorado) to help alleviate the pain of losing Walker. Payton Thorne returns at quarterback, and Jayden Reed headlines a deep group of wide receivers. While the depth is questionable, the starting offensive line is quite experienced and should be solid. Illinois transfer Daniel Barker and Maliq Carr make up a strong tight end duo. The offense looks really good.
Defensively, Mel Tucker also hired Brandon Jordan as a pass-rushing specialist coach and Marco Coleman as defensive line coach, so the pass rush could be even better this season. Most importantly, MSU’s passing defense, which ranked dead last in the FBS last season (giving up about 325 yards per game) should be much healthier, more experienced and improved in 2022. Cornerback Ameer Speed is another transfer addition (Georgia) who should make an immediate difference for the Spartans.
So between the returning talent, transfer additions, freshmen, coaching staff changes, and overall confidence of the team, Michigan State should be in for another strong season. The schedule is brutal, but there is no reason (outside of significant injuries) why the Spartans won’t be a nine-, 10- or even 11-win team in 2022.
2. Western Michigan fans will remember the incredible freshman season wide receiver Jayden Reed had for the Broncos in 2018 and recruiting enthusiasts will remember that Payton Thorne was a WMU commit until a late flip to Michigan State in the 2019 class. Where is the ceiling for the duo in the Big Ten this season and beyond?
“Did you know they played middle school and high school football together?” — said every person ever. Joking aside, these two have an obvious chemistry that is off the charts and they will once again make plenty of plays together in 2022.
I expect Reed to be a first-team All-Big Ten wide receiver, and if the coaching staff allows it, he could be a first-team all-conference player as a kick/punt returner as well. Reed could even have a special enough season to break into All-American territory, and perhaps be in the running for some major awards.
For Thorne, this is his team now, and without Walker, a lot more will fall on his shoulders. Tucker has lauded Thorne’s growth as a true leader of the team who holds teammates accountable, and after breaking the MSU program record for single-season touchdown passes in 2021, he’ll look to put together an even stronger campaign as a redshirt junior in 2022. Thorne is a coach’s son — his dad, Jeff, is of course WMU’s offensive coordinator — so his football lQ is extremely high. I expect Thorne to garner All-Big Ten honors by the end of the season, and possibly be in the conversation for some trophies along with Reed. However, more importantly than the statistics Thorne puts up will be his ability to lead the team and manage expectations throughout the year.
3. Under Mark Dantonio the Spartans built their national identity through their defense. Has that changed under Mel Tucker? What are the expectations for the defense this season?
LIke Dantonio, Tucker has a defensive background — he was a former defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator before becoming a head coach — and I’m sure he would certainly like for Michigan State’s defense to get back to the level it was under Dantonio. However, the 2021 team was more known for its offense with guys like Thorne, Reed and Walker, while the defense had its issues.
As I mentioned, the Spartans really struggled to defend the pass last season, and (although the yards per attempt numbers were more respectable), MSU ranked last in the country in passing yards allowed per game. As a former defensive backs coach, Tucker was certainly not happy about that, so he made changes to his defensive staff, brought some defensive players in from the transfer portal and has spent a lot of time personally coaching the cornerbacks throughout fall camp. Expect the MSU passing defense to be much improved this season.
Also, what often got overlooked last season because of the struggles defending the pass was how stout Michigan State was against the run (117.2 yards allowed per game, 17th in FBS). MSU returns a deep group of defensive tackles, and has an improved group of linebackers, so expect opposing teams to struggle to run the ball on the Spartans once again in 2022.
Overall, the players have really seemed to buy into Tucker’s culture of accountability, intensity, relentless work ethic and family. I expect to see big time growth and improvements from the defensive side of the ball this season.
4. The Spartans are 15th in the nation in the preseason polls. Is that too low? Too high?
Honestly, I think it is just right. Michigan State is getting some national respect in the preseason polls this time around, which I think is deserved, but not too much hype. On paper, the Spartans are probably not a top-10 team, but personally I don’t see 15 or 20 other schools right now that I would put ahead of MSU. So, I agree with around 14th or 15th. With all of that said preseason polls are kind of silly. The reality is that it is all a guessing game right now, as we won’t actually know what this team looks like on the field until Friday.
5. Where is Friday’s game going to be won and lost from the Michigan State perspective? What will the final score be?
As mentioned, probably the two biggest question marks for Michigan State this season are along the offensive line and in the secondary.
Can the offensive linemen generate a push in the ground game without Walker around to bail them out? Can the offensive line protect Thorne? Most importantly, can it stay healthy? Defensively, can MSU actually defend the pass this season and get off of the field on third down? These are the questions that the Spartans need to answer this season, starting on Friday night against Western Michigan.
I also think Western will be quite excited to play this game and prove it can hang with MSU. There are the various storylines with Jayden Reed (a former Bronco player), Payton Thorne (a former Bronco commit) and Jeff Thorne (father of Payton, WMU’s offensive coordinator), etc. WMU is going to give this MSU squad everything it has. Also, season openers tend to be a bit sloppy.
Overall, though, Michigan State is just the much more talented team and is playing at home in “The Woodshed” (Spartan Stadium). I don’t see the Spartans struggling too much in this one. The final score could end up looking a bit closer if MSU takes its foot of the gas late in the game, so be wary of that 23-point spread (as of the time I am writing this).
Final score: Michigan State 38, Western Michigan 17
Many thanks go out to Ryan and the crew over at The Only Colors for reaching out! Follow them on Twitter over @TheOnlyColors for an MSU perspective on tomorrow’s game.