Michigan State enters the 2016 season in a place it hasn’t been very often in recent years – under the radar. The continuous mass exodus of talent in East Lansing – culminating in Connor Cook’s graduation – seems to have finally dropped the Spartans down a few notches in the eyes of experts and fans around the country.
Most publications – including Athlon Sports – project Michigan State to finish outside of the top two in the Big Ten East in 2016, which would certainly eliminate them from College Football Playoff contention. There is, however, plenty of reason to believe that this Spartan squad can put together yet another championship-caliber run on the back of a system that works and talented players in key positions.
Three Reasons Why Michigan State Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. Senior Leadership at Quarterback
Most programs that lose arguably the greatest quarterback in its history replace him with an underclassman poised to cement his own legacy over the next couple of seasons. Michigan State, on the other hand, will be led by fifth-year senior Tyler O’Conner. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound signal-caller has waited for his turn behind Cook and mastered the offense in the process. He has a stronger arm than his predecessor and is much more mobile. And let’s not forget: O’Conner notched a win over Ohio State in Columbus last November while replacing an injured Cook.
2. Solid Running Game
Having leadership and stability at the quarterback position is great, but it was the Spartan running game that literally sent Michigan State to the College Football Playoff last year on the back of a 22-play, 82-yard drive against Iowa. LJ Scott did the bulk of the damage on that drive. He’ll return as the projected workhorse back and will be spelled by two other capable runners in Madre London and Gerald Holmes. They’ll all run behind an offensive line that returns three starters and is led by Brian Allen – one of the top linemen in college football.
3. A System That Works
Call it a system. Call it a program. Whatever you want to call it, it works. Mark Dantonio has installed a winning culture built on running the ball tough and playing stingy, next-man-up defense – a timeless recipe for success at every level. The players buy in early and execute the scheme on both sides of the ball to near perfection. Tradition does not graduate.
Three Reasons Why Michigan Won’t Makes the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. No Proven Consistent Playmakers in the Passing Game
Sure, the run is the bread and butter of what Michigan State does on offense, but they’ll need big plays through the air to win all the games they need to win to get to the postseason. Aaron Burbridge is gone and there does not appear to be a receiver in the fold that can step in as a tradition No. 1 option and provide the same explosiveness as he did. R.J. Shelton is gifted, but he is a gimmick player who thrives on plays specifically designed to get him the ball.
2. No Elite Pass Rusher
You can scheme all you want, but if you don’t have elite talent executing your strategy, you probably won’t get elite results. Shilique Calhoun was a once-in-generation pass rusher for Michigan State. The chaos he caused in opposing backfields made the lives of his defensive teammates easier – especially in the secondary. Calhoun will be replaced with a capable athlete, but it’s hard to imagine Dantonio catching lightning in a bottle twice in a row at the same position.
3. A Tricky Schedule
After opening at home with Furman, the Spartans travel to South Bend to play a Notre Dame team with national title aspirations of its own. They’ll follow that up by hosting Wisconsin before the bye week. Mid-October visits from both BYU and Northwestern won’t be easy. They close out the month by hosting Michigan – a team they probably should have lost to in 2015. The last two matchups on the schedule are the home tilt against Ohio State and a trip to Happy Valley to play the Nittany Lions. That’s five teams that won 10 games and one that won nine in 2015. The Spartans would be doing well to split those six contests.
Given Mark Dantonio’s track record as of late, you’d be a fool to bet against the Spartans being in the national title hunt once again in 2016. That said, the loss of some of the greatest players to ever wear a Michigan State uniform combined with a schedule with an underrated degree of difficulty likely means a slight step back in East Lansing. Best-case scenario for Michigan State is probably going 4-2 in the aforementioned six matchups and winning the rest of their games. Worst-case scenario is a .500 season. However you look at it, there is a slim chance, if any, that the Spartans return to the College Football Playoff in 2016.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 13
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: (9-3, 7-2 Big Ten)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 8
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 7.5
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.