According to the preseason expectations of most experts and outlets around the country, the hiccup that was the 2018 Michigan State football season was an anomaly. Most people — inside and outside of East Lansing — fully expect Mark Dantonio's Spartans to be right back in thick of the Big Ten East race. By proxy and according to recent history, that also means Michigan State is a dark horse to win the Big Ten.
As we head into the 2019 college football season, few conferences have as many unknowns and "what-ifs" as the Big Ten. The Michigan State Spartans have all of the pieces in place that would be enough to win the conference most years. Is that enough to get them to the College Football Playoff?
We examine the best arguments for and against the Spartans earning a berth in the College Football Playoff in 2019.
Three Reasons Why Michigan State Will Make it to the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. Brian Lewerke is healthy
The Spartans simply weren't the same after their quarterback was injured in Week 6 against Penn State last season. Heading into the 2018 campaign, many expected Lewerke to break out as perhaps the best signal-caller in the conference. The injury bug may have simply delayed the inevitable.
With Lewerke at 100 percent, the Spartans are always a threat on offense. He has an arm that can make every throw and scrambling ability that demands opposing defenses to stay honest.
All four teams that made the College Football Playoff last season did so on the back of elite quarterback play. Michigan State won't get anything less than that from a healthy Lewerke in 2019.
2. The defense could be the best in the Big Ten
Every player the Spartans line up on the defensive side of the ball has started or received significant playing time. The unit was the best in the nation against the run last season, and with the entire starting defensive line back for another round, it doesn't look like much is going to change on that front.
In the secondary, Michigan State features another cornerback in Josiah Scott who will have a long career playing football on Sundays. He'll be backed up by what appears to be the best safety duo in the conference in David Dowell and Xavier Henderson.
3. A manageable slate through September
It's tough to stay motivated when you lose a game or two early on. Luckily for Michigan State, it appears the Spartans will be favored in every game they play through the month of September. After opening with three straight games at home — the toughest being against Arizona State – Michigan State travels to Northwestern and then returns home to face Indiana.
Sparty could be 5-0 heading into the Ohio State game. If that happens, the team's confidence will be through the roof to begin October.
Three Reasons Why Michigan State Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. Spartans lack an established home-run threat on offense
As good as Lewerke is, he can't hang points on the board alone — and points are what you need to beat the Ohio States and Michigans of the world. There's not a single player on offense outside of Lewerke at this point who keeps defensive coordinators up at night. That needs to change if the Spartans plan on winning the division, let alone have a shot at the playoff.
2. Brutal road trips
You can count on about two fingers the number of teams in the country that you'd bet could win games in Columbus, Ann Arbor and Madison in the same season. The Spartans will need to do exactly that in order to claim the Big Ten East. It's a tall order, and dropping any of those games likely means falling out of the College Football Playoff conversation.
3. An improved Big Ten West
Even if all goes according to plan for Michigan State and the Spartans earn a trip to the Big Ten Championship game, they'll be facing a West division champion who went through quite the gauntlet of its own. The Spartans will either need a second win over defending division champion Northwestern, perennial power Wisconsin, or beat the likes of Iowa or Nebraska — two teams that will likely hang out in the top 25 most of the season. If it's not one of the four teams, it's Minnesota — the most experienced team in the conference — or a Purdue team that has already proven it can take down the Big Ten's elite.
After surviving what will likely be a bloodbath of a Big Ten East race, it would be a lot to ask of Michigan State to pull off yet one more win against a team just as battle-tested — this time on a neutral field.
If I'm being quite honest — and I suppose that's my job — I don't think the Big Ten gets a team into the College Football Playoff this season. It won't be because the conference isn't good enough, because it could very well be the best in the nation from top to bottom. It will be because of all the obstacles I've laid out. Both divisions are wide open, meaning most games are going to be coin tosses. Expecting any team to come out of the Big Ten Championship Game with an unblemished record in 2019 is almost unreasonable. If that happens then that team absolutely gets in. I just don't see it playing out that way.
I have all the confidence in the world that Michigan State can win the Big Ten. I just don't think these Spartans can do it without losing a game or two — which all but knocks them out of College Football Playoff contention.
Athlon's Projected Final Ranking: 16
Athlon's Projected Final Record: 8-4 (5-4 Big Ten)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 8
5 Dimes Projected Over/Under Odds: 8
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo!, SBNation, USA Today and Bleacher Report. He is a three-time FWAA writing contest award winner. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.