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2020 Big Ten Preview: Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio takes the field with his team before the game against Maryland in East Lansing on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.Neil Blake | MLive.com

New head coach Mel Tucker looks to spark a Michigan State Spartans team that has been mediocre at best for the past couple of seasons. After being selected as the fourth team in the 2015-16 college football playoff, the Spartans have not quite lived up to their program’s pedigree, managing only a 27-24 record, including a 3-9 record in the season directly after their playoff appearance.

Will 2020 be the year that Michigan State finally becomes relevant again? Well, let’s take a look.

Under Mike Tressel, Michigan State ranked nationally in total defense for the past three years (18th, 7th, and 10th). While Tressel will return as the safeties coach, Tucker has brought in Scottie Hazelton as his defensive coordinator for 2020. Hazelton’s job isn’t made any easier by the fact that the Spartans only return three full-time starters from last year’s squad.

While they have some experience in a few positions, there will be many stepping up to do for this Spartans defense. Not to sound like a broken record here, but experience will be at a considerable premium this year, especially early in the season, given that teams have had less time to prepare.

The Spartans will look to new starters Naquan Jones and Jacob Slade to generate some pass rush upfront. On edge, seniors Jack Camper and Drew Beesley will attempt to do so as well, opposite to Jacub Panasiuk, who has decided to opt back into 2020 after initially planning to redshirt.

One of the bright spots for Michigan State this year will be the team’s 2019 leading tackler, Antjuan Simmons, who registered a total of 90 tackles, 15 for loss, and 3.5 sacks. Simmons will be the cornerstone of a defense in 2020 that may very well still be a mess even though he is a top linebacker in the Big Ten.

Xavier Henderson will return as a leader in the secondary. In 2019, Henderson made a total of 83 tackles, two interceptions, and five pass breakups, making him the top defensive back on the team.

Most positions on the Spartans defense are up for grabs. It is difficult to tell who will fill these positions, but, likely, the challenges surrounding this season and the task of replacing nine starters will be too much to overcome for the Spartans.

On offense, the biggest question leading up to the season has been Brian Lewerke’s replacement at quarterback. Rocky Lombardi had some experience when Lewerke was injured, but the small sample size is not a large enough sample to definitively say he is the starter. Lombardi, Theo Day, and Peyton Thorne will fight it out for the starting job. With Lombardi being the most experienced, Michigan State will probably run with him for the first part of the season.

Whoever wins the starting QB job will have to overcome the loss of the team’s three top pass catchers from 2019. The Spartans’ new top target will be Jayden Reed, a Freshman All-American with Western Michigan after hauling in 56 passes for the Broncos in 2018. After a season on the sidelines due to transfer rules, Reed could provide a consistent target for Lombardi, Day or Thorne.

While the passing game is relatively uncertain, the run game will be steady for Michigan State in 2020. The Spartans return sophomore running back Elijah Collins, who tallied 1,087 yards and five touchdowns from scrimmage in 2019. On top of that, the Spartans will have the luxury of choosing between ten offensive linemen who have started at least one game in their careers. This kind of quality depth and experience is invaluable this year. New offensive coordinator Jay Johnson will find this kind of abundance valuable to his offense’s overall success.

Overall, Michigan State has gone through an immense amount of change over this offseason. Usually, new regimes spark excitement surrounding the teams who get them, but in 2020, previous experience will be huge. It seems as though the Michigan State Spartans may be a big mess this year unless some of these new faces can move seamlessly into their new position, which one cannot count on. It also does not help that the Spartans have away games at Iowa, Michigan, and Penn State and a home game against Ohio State.

2020 season record prediction: 4-4

Check in later for more Big Ten previews!

Up next: the Penn State Nittany Lions


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