Michigan Football Schedule Countdown: No. 8 — Michigan State
This is part five of a 12-part series in which we count down Michigan Wolverines football's 2021 strength of schedule from its easiest game (No. 12) to the most difficult (No. 1).
Checking in at No. 8 is the rivalry showdown against Michigan State Oct. 30 in East Lansing. A complete breakdown of the Spartans is below.
Head Coach: Mel Tucker (2nd season); 2-5 record (28.5 winning percentage)
• 2017 — 33rd nationally
• 2018 — 26th
• 2019 — 32nd
• 2020 — 36th
• 2021 — 39th
2020 Record: 2-5 (2-5 in Big Ten play)
Tucker's debut campaign in East Lansing was a rough one, with the Spartans limping to an ugly 2-5 finish. All five of the losses came by at least 11 points, including a 49-7 defeat at Iowa and a 52-12 beatdown at the hands of No. 4 Ohio State.
Oddly enough, Michigan State's two wins were both against top-15 clubs — No. 13 Michigan Oct. 31 (though the Wolverines were immensely overrated at the time) and No. 8 Northwestern Nov. 28.
Not much went right for MSU as a whole this past fall, with both sides of the ball having struggled mightily. The club's offense finished 109th nationally and the team's defense wrapped up at 54th in the country.
Quarterback play was especially pitiful, with Rocky Lombardi completing just 53.5 percent of his passes and tossing nine interceptions before eventually giving way to redshirt freshman Payton Thorne.
Thorne connected on 56.5 percent of his passes and threw three touchdowns and three interceptions in 85 attempts.
Did You Know?
• Michigan leads the all-times series against Michigan State, 71-37-5.
• The 2021 showdown between the two clubs will take place in East Lansing, where Michigan has won the last two meetings. The Wolverines' 21-7 triumph in 2018 was the program's first double-digit victory in East Lansing since grabbing a 23-7 victory there in 1997.
• The 2021 season will be just Tucker's third full campaign as a head coach. Last year was his first season at MSU, and he spent the 2019 season at Colorado in his debut showing as a head coach (5-7 record). He was also the Jacksonville Jaguars' interim head man in 2011 and went 2-3.
Lombardi transferred to Northern Illinois following last season, meaning the Spartans will have a new main signal-caller this upcoming fall. Thorne will compete primarily with Temple transfer fifth-year senior Anthony Russo for the starting job, after the latter threw for 5,424 yards, 35 touchdowns and 26 interceptions during his time as an Owl.
Michigan State also returns its top three rushers, in sophomore Jordon Simmons, fifth-year senior Connor Heyward and redshirt junior Elijah Collins. The trio combined for zero touchdowns in 2020 though, with all three of them averaging 3.9 yards per carry or fewer.
Redshirt sophomore Kenneth Walker will also be added to the mix after rushing for 579 yards and 13 touchdowns last season as a Demon Deacon. The Spartans will have plenty of continuity at receiver as well, bringing back their top three pass catchers in redshirt junior Jalen Nailor, redshirt junior Jayden Reed and sophomore Ricky White.
The three of them combined for 1,145 yards and eight touchdowns in 2020. Continuity is also the name of the game on defense, as Michigan State brings back five of its top six leading tacklers (linebacker Antjuan Simmons is the lone exception).
The Spartans' rush defense was one of the few semi-bright spots for their 2020 squad, with the unit finishing 55th in the nation against the run. The secondary struggled, however, concluding at 72nd against the pass.
Michigan State returns its two leading tacklers in the secondary in senior safety Xavier Henderson and redshirt junior safety Michael Dowell, but loses their next two leading tacklers at defensive back in safety Tre Person and cornerback Shakur Brown.
The Spartans possessed one of the worst turnover margins in the nation in 2020 at minus-nine, which ranked 118th in the country. This stat, along with several of the aforementioned ones, sums up the immense rebuilding job Tucker faces in East Lansing.
Why No. 8 in the Countdown?
It's not expected to be a quick turnaround for Michigan State in 2021, with most anticipating the Spartans to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten once again. Revenge will also be a factor for Michigan when the two take the field, seeing as how Michigan State picked up an upset win at The Big House last season.
Neither team is expected to be very good in 2021 though, so this one probably won't be a cakewalk — or anything even close to it — for the Maize and Blue. The showdown will take place Oct. 30, meaning fans will have a good sense of the caliber of each club by that point (unlike last year, when the two met in just the second game of the year).
We placed matchups against Rutgers and Maryland as the only two conference games that should be "easier" for U-M than the one against the Spartans, but the contest with MSU is basically on par with those two.
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