10 predictions for Michigan State football this season

Mel Tucker is heading into his second season coaching the Spartans.

That much is clear while most of the rest remains speculation.

Following a 2-5 record in a pandemic-altered 2020 season, Tucker overhauled the roster with 33 new scholarship players. There are transfer additions in the mix at nearly every position who are expected to speed up a rebuild.

Game-by-game predictions for Michigan State football

There’s no soft opening for the Spartans with the season opener on Friday (9 p.m., ESPN) at Northwestern, which won the Big Ten West Division last year. That’s the start of a challenging schedule that features a road trip to Miami and closes with back-to-back games against Ohio State and Penn State.

Here are 10 predictions for Michigan State this season, along with projected wins and losses and breakout players on both sides of the ball:

No cancellations

The easiest prediction heading into last season was that at least one Michigan State game would be canceled. It ended up being two and both by the same opponent, Maryland, due to positive COVID-19 results. Both were ruled a no-contest, per Big Ten guidelines.

COVID-19 remains a threat and the Big Ten changed its rules this year to declare if one team can’t play, it will be charged with a loss as part of a forfeit. There will probably be a few bumps in the road this season but vaccines should lead to fewer disruptions and NCAA guidelines favor the fully vaccinated.

Michigan State requires all students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated, with limited medical and religious exceptions, and Tucker on Tuesday said the team is about 96 or 97 percent vaccinated. Expect the Spartans to play a full schedule this fall and if that doesn’t happen, it probably won’t be their fault.

More than one QB will start

It’s now two days before the season opener and Tucker hasn’t publicly named a starting quarterback. The competition between redshirt sophomore Payton Thorne and Temple graduate transfer Anthony Russo has been going on since the winter and Tucker hasn’t given an indication of either having an edge, although on Tuesday he said the quarterbacks may know who will start.

Tucker didn’t name a starting quarterback last year ahead of the season opener as Rocky Lombardi got the nod ahead of Thorne. Lombardi’s struggles led to him being replaced by Thorne in a trio of games and Thorne got the start in the season finale when Lombardi was out injured.

Mel Tucker may know Michigan State’s starting quarterback but isn’t saying who it is

Russo has the advantage in experience while Thorne is more mobile, younger and could have a higher ceiling. If the competition really is that close and the starter struggles, especially early in the season, Tucker will have to decide how long to wait before he makes a change. Russo threw 32 interceptions in his final 28 games at Temple while Thorne tossed a pick in all three games last season in which he played significant snaps.

Maybe Thorne or Russo takes command of the offense from the opener and cements their spot. However, it feels like a year in which we see both start for the Spartans.

Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor combine for at least 1,500 receiving yards, 10 touchdowns

Reed and Nailor are the top two returning receivers on the roster after combing for 59 catches for 922 yards and seven touchdowns last year. The redshirt juniors appear poised to form one of the top tandems at the position in the conference this fall.

Michigan State looking for young receivers to step up this season

Michigan State’s offense was one of the worst in the nation last season but a revived vertical passing attack was a highlight with Reed and Nailor combining for seven of the team’s eight receptions of at least 45 yards. Nailor has the speed to get behind a defense and led the Big Ten at 19.8 yard per reception last season. Reed can turn a short reception into a big gain and said he will be lining up at multiple spots this fall.

Kenneth Walker III leads team in carries, rushing yards

Walker rushed for 1,158 yards and 17 touchdowns on 217 carries in 20 games over the last two seasons at Wake Forest but didn’t feel the offense was the right fit for him. That led to him transferring to Michigan State in January.

Since joining the Spartans, Walker has impressed teammates and coaches and looked like he could be a difference maker for a team that needs one. Michigan State ranked 122nd out of 127 teams in the nation in rushing last year at only 91.4 yards per game and had zero touchdowns from its running backs.

Walker is part of a crowded backfield that includes Elijah Collins, who rushed for 988 yards and five touchdowns in 2019, Jordon Simmons, who led the team in rushing last year as a true freshman, and Auburn transfer Harold Joiner. I’m not ready to predict Walker will be Michigan State’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Jeremy Langford in 2014 (I whiffed on that prediction a few times in recent years) but expect him to get the bulk of the carries and lead the team in rushing.

Offense averages at least 25 points per game

Michigan State ranked last in the Big Ten and 116th in the nation in scoring last year at only 18.0 points per game. It was the lowest total for the program since 17.9 in 2000.

A lot of factors contributed to the meager production, including inconsistent quarterback play, along with an ineffective offensive line and rushing attack. Those are areas the Spartans certainly have the potential to improve and averaging 25 points per game is not a huge accomplishment, even if they haven’t done it since 2015. A 25.0 scoring average would have ranked 10th in the Big Ten and 90th in the nation last year. Michigan State is long overdue at reaching that mark.

Turnover margin remains negative

Michigan State opened last season with a seven-turnover performance in a loss against Rutgers. That was the chief reason for that defeat and turnovers certainly contributed to other losses. The only game the team generated more turnovers than it committed came in an upset win against Northwestern.

The Spartans finished last season at minus-9 in turnover margin with 20 turnovers lost and 11 gained. The average of minus-1.29 per game tied for 121st in the nation.

Michigan State football notes: Injury update and depth at running back

Expect Michigan State to be better in turnover margin this season but still finish negative. Top cornerback Shakur Brown, who was responsible for all five of the team’s interceptions last year, left for the NFL. Michigan State quarterbacks have also combined to throw 41 interceptions over 33 games spanning the last three seasons.

Run defense improves but remains outside top 20 nationally

From 2011 and 2018, Michigan State ranked in the top 10 in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game six times in eight seasons, including first in 2014 and 2018. After declining to 16th at 113.8 yards per game in 2019, the Spartans fell to 55th at 157.3 last year. They also gave up 20 rushing touchdowns in seven games last year, which is one more than the 19 they gave up in 26 games over the previous two seasons combined.

The average allowed per game on the ground last year was inflated by Iowa and Ohio State combining for 548 rushing yards in blowouts. With Michigan State returning three starters on the defensive line and having a full offseason working on scheme, expect a stingier rushing defense. But there’s uncertainty at linebacker following heavy turnover at the position, so don’t expect a throwback to Michigan State defenses of the past, just better.

At least three transfers are regular starters on defense

This isn’t much of a bold prediction but it’s not like Tucker is releasing a depth chart or rattling off starters at any spot. The back seven of Michigan State’s 4-2-5 defense was overhauled through the portal and those guys will need to contribute immediately, especially at linebacker and cornerback.

Noah Harvey, who started all seven games last season, and top backup Chase Kline are the only linebackers on the roster who have taken defensive snaps with the team. The Spartans brought in three transfers at the position in Quavaris Crouch (Tennessee), Ben VanSumeren (Michigan) and Itayvion Brown (Minnesota), although Brown moved to defensive end early in fall camp as an edge rusher. If Harvey keeps his starting spot, Crouch and VanSumeren, who have both have Power Five experience as starters, are in the mix to join him.

Projecting Michigan State’s depth chart heading into season opener

The situation is somewhat similar at cornerback with Kalon Gervin returning as a starter but likely needing to hold off newcomers to keep the spot. Ronald Williams (Alabama) and Chester Kimbrough (Florida) have logged snaps in the SEC and lead the way among the transfer additions likely to move into key roles at cornerback with Marqui Lowery (Louisville) and Khary Crump (Arizona) behind them after not playing as true freshmen last year. Kimbrough could also line up at nickelback this season.

Additionally, although Michigan State returns starting defensive ends Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley, who both are using the extra season of eligibility provided by the NCAA due to COVID-19, Tucker brought in graduate transfer Drew Jordan from Duke. Jordan was productive while making 21 starts in 48 career games with the Blue Devils and should be pushing for a lot of snaps or even a starting spot.

Don’t expect a true freshman to be a major contributor on offense or defense

Although Tucker made it clear he won’t hesitate to play the young guys, the influx of transfers makes it less likely the Spartans will need to rely on true freshmen. This prediction comes with the caveat that long snapper Hank Pepper, a scholarship signee, is the frontrunner to take over that spot.

Linebacker Ma’a Gaoteote, a four-star prospect from Las Vegas, was the highest-ranked member of Michigan State’s 18-player 2021 signing class. However, he likely faces an uphill battle to crack the rotation this year and didn’t participate in the open practice on Aug. 23.

Picking one true freshman on either side of the ball most likely to contribute this season, I’ll go with receiver Keon Coleman and cornerback Charles Brantley. Coleman, who also plans on playing basketball for the Spartans, is a 6-foot-4 athletic talent but is still learning the position so I think he’ll probably be used only situationally this year. Brantley has been praised for his physical nature but is listed at only 165 pounds and may need to put on weight before he can be a regular in the rotation.

Improved consistency and a bowl game

Michigan State’s two wins last season were upsets against teams ranked in the top 15 in the nation at the time while all five losses were by double digits. The inconsistency wasn’t much of a surprise, given the lack of preparation time the team had under a new staff.

With a full offseason leading up to the 2021 campaign, expect fewer wild swings week-to-week for the Spartans. That should lead to fewer lopsided scores and them staying closer in most games deep into the second half.

A .500 record or better, along with a trip to a bowl game, would be a successful season for the Spartans and show progress for Tucker in his second year. Those are attainable goals..

Final predictions:

Record: 7-5

Wins: Northwestern, Youngstown State, Nebraska, Western Kentucky, Michigan, Purdue and Maryland

Losses: Miami, Rutgers, Indiana, Ohio State and Penn State

Breakout offensive player: Kenneth Walker III, RB

Breakout defensive player: Ronald Williams, CB

Related Michigan State football stories:

Northwestern brings ‘sour taste’ from upset loss last season into opener vs. Michigan State

Michigan State DT Jalen Hunt feels poised for breakout season

At 6-foot-4, Michigan State’s Harold Joiner breaks the mold at running back

Michigan State’s preparation heats up with focus shifting to Northwestern

LB transfer Quavaris Crouch brings experience and passion to Michigan State’s defense