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Western Michigan vs. Michigan State Football Prediction and Preview

Broncos, Spartans kick season off with in-state battle in East Lansing on Friday night.

Week 1 of the college football season continues with eight games on Friday, and the only game with a ranked team will take place in East landing, where Michigan State hosts Western Michigan.

Related: College Football Predictions for Every Game in Week 1

Last season, Western Michigan upset Pitt, the eventual Atlantic Coast Conference champion. However, WMU could only manage to win half of its Mid-American Conference contests. Therefore, the Broncos finished in a three-way tie for last place in the MAC West. They ended the season on a positive note with a victory in their bowl game over Nevada in Detroit. 

In 2021, Michigan State topped off a 10-2 regular season by defeating Pitt in the Peach Bowl. Last season was MSU's most successful since 2015 when the Spartans won the Big Ten championship and advanced to the College Football Playoff.

Michigan State leads the series, 11-0. Ten of those wins occurred in East Lansing. These programs last faced each other in 2019, a 51-17 victory for MSU.

Western Michigan at Michigan State 

Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 2 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN
Live Stream: fuboTV (Start your free trial)
Spread: Michigan State -22.5

When Western Michigan Has the Ball

The Broncos will rely on one or two redshirt freshmen to direct the offense. Jack Salopek appeared in two games last season, completing three of five passes for 20 yards. Mareyohn Hrabowski played in four games in 2021 and rushed 21 times for 121 yards, although he was unsuccessful on his only passing attempt. 

The inexperienced quarterbacks will likewise have targets who are completely new to the team. A.J. Abbott transferred from Wisconsin after appearing in four games and recording three receptions for 19 yards as a Badger. Jehlani Galloway transferred to Kalamazoo from Boston College after two seasons (18 rec., 215 yds., 2 TDs). Four other receivers, three redshirt freshmen and a sophomore, did not catch a pass in 2021. Corey Crooms is by far the most productive returning wideout, finishing second on the team last season in both yards (768) and touchdowns (six) while hauling in 44 passes (third).  

Fortunately for WMU, the top two runnings backs remain in the fold. Sean Tyler led the way with 1,150 rushing yards, which was second in the MAC, to go along with nine touchdowns. La'Darius Jefferson, who started his collegiate career at Michigan State, was next with 836 yards and was tops on the team with 10 scores on the ground. Together, they helped the Broncos average 214.1 rushing yards per game, which was third in the conference and 16th nationally.

When Michigan State Has the Ball

Michigan State faces the unenviable task of replacing Kenneth Walker III, who won the Doak Walker Award and Walker Camp Award before departing for the NFL. Head coach Mel Tucker is hoping to repeat what he did in 2021: bolster the offense with a running back transfer. He has two new candidates in Jalen Berger and Jarek Broussard. Berger comes over from Wisconsin, where he led the team in rushing (60 att., 301 yds. 2 TDs in four games) in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign but only played in three games last season before being dismissed. He's eager for a fresh start with the Spartans. Broussard, formerly at Colorado, led the Pac-12 in rushing in 2020 with 895 yards in six games and followed that up with a team-high 661 yards last season. Broussard is familiar with Tucker as he redshirted in 2019, Tucker's last season as Buffaloes head coach, due to a knee injury.

Harold Joiner is another option in the backfield. Joiner joined Michigan State last season after spending 2018-20 at Auburn. Joiner appeared in 12 of the Spartans' 13 games but saw limited touches, finishing with 43 yards on 13 carries, to go along with five catches for 35 yards. But with Walker gone, any of these backs could carve out a lead role. Tucker and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson also could opt for a committee approach or go with the hot hand. The good news is that the offensive line returns plenty of starting experience including All-Big Ten candidate J.D. Duplain at left guard, but durability is a question mark throughout this position group.

Questions about the running game aside, Michigan State should be able to lean on its aerial attack, led by quarterback Payton Thorne. Entering his second year as the starter, Thorne set a single-season school record with 27 touchdown passes in 2021 and his 3,232 are fourth among returning signal-callers in the conference. There is room for improvement when it comes to accuracy (60.2 percent completion rate last season) and turnovers (10 INTs, 6 fumbles lost). The good news for Thorne is that his top target, wide receiver Jayden Reed, decided to forego the NFL Draft to return for his senior season. Reed was the runaway team leader in all three receiving categories (59 rec., 1,026 yds., 10 TDs) and added a pair of punts returned for a touchdown. He's an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-Big Ten selection for a reason. Tre Mosley, who was third on the team in the three main receiving categories (35, 530, 3) will serve as the most experienced complementary target.

Final Analysis

If Michigan State had a glaring weakness in 2021, it was stopping the pass. The Spartans finished dead last in FBS by allowing 342.8 yards through the air per game. Their schedule had something to do with this (faced three of the top five passing offenses in the country in WKU, Ohio State, and Purdue), but that's not the only reason for the poor performance.

Whether or not those vulnerabilities have been resolved probably will not be answered against Western Michigan's inexperienced passing game. Additionally, the five projected starting defensive backs in green are all upper-classmen (including Georgia transfer cornerback Ameer Speed), presumably improved after their horrible struggles last season.

Unfortunately for the Broncos, their most formidable threat on offense will literally run into the strength of Michigan State's defense. The Spartans were a top-20 rushing defense (117.2 ypg) last season and tied for the eighth-fewest rushing touchdowns per game (0.8). Five of the six leading tacklers from 2021 have returned and the defensive line features three seniors with three juniors backing up the first string.

Western Michigan lost too many contributors from last season. Michigan State retained the bulk of its starters. Experience will make a huge difference in the outcome on Friday night.

Prediction: Michigan State 34, Western Michigan 10

Podcast: Week 1 Preview and Predictions + Betting and Picks Against the Spread

— 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.