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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Is MSU For Real?

Over the past several weeks I have been bombarded with comments from Michigan State students, alumni, and fans telling me about the strength of their team and their ability to crush Michigan again this year.

However, after watching the first 6 weeks of the season, I have been far less confident in Michigan State's ability to finish at the top of the Big Ten again this year. So, is Michigan State for real or are they closer to what Michigan was last season? Hot early, but likely to end the season as an average or above-average Big Ten team.

Here's What We Know About Michigan State:
  • Finished 11-2 Last Season (Lost @ Iowa and to Alabama in a bowl)
  • 13 Returning Starters From 2010 (8th in the Big Ten)
  • 4-1 in 2011 (Loss @ Notre Dame)
  • Ranked #23 in the AP Poll and #19 in the Coaches Poll
  • Ranked #1 in Total Defense (173.4 yds/g)
  • Ranked #3 in Rush Defense (64 yds/g)
  • Ranked #64 in Total Offense (398 yds/g)
  • Ranked #95 in 3rd down conversions (35.21%)
Well, from that limited info, one might believe this should be one of the best teams in the league. They only lost 1 game, had more than half their starters return from an 11 win team, and have one of the best defenses in the nation.

However, this assumption would not be completely accurate. Undoubtedly, Michigan State's defense is solid, a team isn't placed into the top 5 without at least a decent defense, but you can't help but notice the weakness of some of the teams they've faced. For instance, here are the offensive stats for Michigan State's opponents:

Total Offense Stats:

Youngstown State - FCS (hard to compare stats, but had 254 yds against MSU)
Florida Atlantic - 119th (230 yds/g)
Notre Dame - 20th (467.5yds/g)
Central Michigan - 88th (350.5 yds/g)
Ohio State - 105th (315.3 yds/g)

So, what does this tell us? Excluding Youngstown State, which can't really be compared seeing as they are an FCS team, MSU has faced one top 50 offense this year. Michigan has already faced two at this point (Western Michigan and Notre Dame) and another two in the top 70 (San Diego State and Northwestern).

Since it is unlikely many people have found Michigan's schedule brutal this year, you cannot help but question those defensive stats. There is no doubt Michigan State's defense is solid, but I would be hesitant to put it in the elite stats. They do typically hold their opponents to much fewer yards than they average, which is the typical sign of a good defense, but when 60% of your opponents are MAC level or below, a Big Ten team should be able to hold the defense to below its average yards per game.

Although the defensive stats may be skewed for Michigan State, the offensive stats illustrate some of the early season troubles. Michigan State has essentially been unable to run the ball behind its young line, Kirk Cousins has made many mistakes, and they have frankly struggled moving the ball. Here's a comparison

MSU Offensive Stats - 2011 - 2010:

Total Offense +9.5 yds/g
Passing Offense +32.8 yds/g
Rushing Offense -23.7 yds/g
Scoring Offense -1.5 pts/g

So, what can we see from this? Michigan State is actually moving the ball more than last year, but only by 9.5 yds/g. Along with this, they are being forced to pass the ball more (likely due to their weak offensive line) and are scoring less even though they are moving the ball further. At first glance, this doesn't seem significant. The difference of gaining 9.5 yds/g more and scoring 1.5 pts/g fewer isn't all that important.

However, let's take a look back at the schedule. The stats from 2010 cover the ENTIRE season. This means they include Michigan State's games against 6 teams in the Top 51 defenses of 2010 (Alabama, Wisconsin, Iowa, Penn State, Illinois, and Notre Dame). As of now, Michigan State has faced 2 defenses in the Top 51 (Ohio State #22 and Notre Dame #51).

Obviously, if a team faces tougher defenses, their stats are going to go down. Along with this, even the 2 defenses they have faced this season are in the middle or rear of the top 51 (Alabama, Wisconsin, and Iowa were all in the top 25 in 2010). Essentially, what this means is that not only are Michigan State's defensive stats boosted, their offensive stats (roughly equivalent to last season) are boosted as well.

Now, I don't expect Michigan State to lose the remainder of its games and miss a bowl, but I do not expect them to even come close to 11-2 or winning the Big Ten. They may be able to sneak past Michigan and Nebraska for the Legends Division, but I don't see them having any chance against Wisconsin (assuming they win the Leaders).

So, is Michigan State For Real?

I say not quite. They are an above average Big Ten team, but not championship or BCS-caliber.

Also, an MSU joke:

Did you hear they're going to start calling Spartan Stadium, "The Shed"?
Yeah, because every Big House has a shed behind it...