Michigan State has a clean slate following a horrendous 2016 season in which Spartans went just 3-9, losing seven in a row at one point. It was their poorest overall showing in a season since finishing 2-9 in 1982. Michigan State’s 1-8 tally in Big Ten games was the weakest since stumbling to 0-5-1 in 1958.
Bowling Green also flopped last season, as a 4-8 record put an end to a streak of four straight winning campaigns and bowl appearances. It also marked the first time since 2012 that the Falcons did not represent the East Division in the MAC Championship Game.
Michigan State has won both previous meetings with Bowling Green. Those were played in East Lansing in 1981 and 2007. Since1975, the Spartans are 31-3 against MAC teams. Going back to 1972, the Falcons have gone 8-17 against Big Ten opponents with three of those victories (vs. Indiana in 2014, over Maryland and Purdue in ’15) coming in the last three seasons.
Bowling Green at Michigan State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Michigan State -18
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Michigan State’s “No Fly Zone” be revived against Falcons’ spread offense?
Bowling Green has five upperclassmen wide receivers among its two-deep roster. Five of the six top receivers from 2016 in terms of yardage are back, as are the two leaders in touchdown catches – Scott Miller (10) and Teo Redding (3). Fellow wideouts Datrin Guyton and Deric Phouthavong were nursing injuries during fall camp. However, they are expected to be healthy enough to play if needed.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan State’s secondary in 2016 was a mere shell of its dominant “No Fly Zone” form from previous seasons. Experience had something to do with the regression, as the Spartans had just four upperclassmen in their two-deep lineup of defensive backs. Two key members – Grayson Miller and Khari Willis – were thrown into the fire after getting their first taste of significant snaps midway through their true freshman seasons in 2015. Last season Willis played in 11 games, but made just one start while Miller made 10 appearances with just two starts. As a team, Michigan State had just eight interceptions in 2016, tied for eighth in the Big Ten and 93rd in the nation.
2. Falcons’ secondary striving for stinginess
Bowling Green struggled mightily against the pass last season. The Falcons gave up 273.3 passing yards per game last season, placing them 115th out of 128 FBS teams. They surrendered 32 touchdown passes and recorded just nine interceptions while allowing opponents to complete 64 percent of their attempts.
If Bowling Green wants to do a better job defending the pass, it needs to start with cornerback play. Four of the five Falcons that saw action there last season are back and the hope is that the growing pains from last season will produce better results this fall. In addition, junior Clint Stephens also returns after missing all of 2016 due to a torn ACL. Unfortunately, projected starting free safety Jamari Bozeman will not play in this game and could be out for the entire season due to an upper leg injury he suffered in fall camp.
3. The post-Michael Geiger era
The Spartans lost Geiger, their four-year starting placekicker, to graduation. He successfully connected on 36 out of 45 field goal attempts of less than 40 yards during his career. Overall, he was 56-for-76 on field goal attempts (73.7 percent) and missed just four of 193 PATs. Michigan State hopes redshirt freshman Matt Coghlin can take his place although he has never attempted a kick at the collegiate level.
The Spartans and their fans hope to continue the pattern of rebounding from disappointing seasons under longtime head coach Dantonio’s leadership. They followed seasons around the .500 mark in 2009 and ‘13 with Big Ten titles in the following seasons. The first step toward re-establishing themselves as a nationally relevant program includes winning the season opener.
The Falcons and their supporters want to return to winning seasons after a face plant in 2016. Bowling Green has shown in recent seasons that it is capable of beating Big Ten members. What better way for the Falcons to erase the taste of last season’s disappointing showing than to take down Michigan State in East Lansing?
Both teams will slog through a sloppy performance. It will look like a typical season opener of teams that looked awful in the previous season. The Spartans’ edge in overall talent and depth will prove to be the difference.
Prediction: Michigan State 27, Bowling Green 20
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.