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What Went Wrong for Michigan State in 2016 and How to Fix the Spartans

Tyler O'Connor

Tyler O'Connor

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There are surprise teams every college football season, on both the good and the bad end of things. The 2016 season seemed particularly heavy on the bad end, with a number of highly-touted teams in the preseason — or teams that were coming off strong ‘15 campaigns — falling flat on their faces and missing out on bowl games.

We’ll be taking a look at some of those heavyweights who took a big dip in 2016, dissecting what went wrong and spotting reasons for optimism heading into this fall. Plenty went wrong for Michigan State late season as the Spartans went from defending Big Ten champions to a game out of last place in the East Division.

Michigan State Spartans

2015 recap: 12-2 (7-1 Big Ten), Big Ten Champions, College Football Playoff participant, No. 6 final ranking (both polls)
2016 preseason: No. 12 AP, No. 11 coaches
2016 recap: 3-9 (1-7 Big Ten)

What Went Wrong

For one, the Spartans lost three-year starting quarterback Connor Cook. That cannot be underestimated. Moreover, they said goodbye to four other key contributors who were drafted: two offensive linemen (C Jack Conklin, G Donovan Clark), wide receiver Aaron Burbridge and pass-rushing machine Shilique Calhoun. Of course, draft departures are nothing new to MSU, and for as much as this program has accomplished in recent years under Mark Dantonio, a 3-9 season is absolutely perplexing.

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So, what exactly happened? As Chris Vannini noted over at CoachingSearch.com, Michigan State saw its production in four major-but-often-overlooked categories take huge dips: The Spartans had the third-largest turnover margin decrease and the fifth-largest third-down offense decrease. Additionally, their third-down defense went up 7.3 percent and their red-zone offense decreased by 11.4 percent.

And yet... the Spartans were a two-point conversion away from beating Ohio State, they gave Michigan a game and they absolutely controlled the game against Notre Dame in a win — albeit against a Notre Dame team that finished 4-8.

How It Can Be Fixed

The aforementioned results suggest that there is talent on this roster, and that 2016 was just one of those rare seasons where everything that can go wrong, does. This was a young team, one with the highest-rated freshman class under Dantonio since 2009 (No. 18 nationally, according to Rivals).

Dantonio has promised changes this offseason, although those will likely come through behind-the-scenes dealings. Michigan State doesn’t lose a whole lot talent-wise, as only defensive lineman Malik McDowell and safety Montae Nicholson declared early for the NFL Draft. Perhaps that could embolden some of the younger talents to assert themselves.

Additionally, recent history shows that the Spartans are used to stability at the QB spot: Both Kirk Cousins (2009-11) and Connor Cook (2013-15) were three-year starters before they were drafted. That gap year, 2012, saw them struggle to a 7-6 season after going 11-3 in 2011. Of course, MSU must settle on a starter from the group competing for that right in 2017: Damion Terry, Brian Lewerke and Messiah deWeaver.

A 3-9 campaign should put everyone on notice in East Lansing. But if recent history is any indication, Dantonio knows the proper ingredients to right the ship and restore a sense of normalcy to Michigan State in 2017.

— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.