It is not a word Spartans fans want to associate with their football team. One has not caught whiffs of it in years, for in the past decade, it’s been other teams that have dreaded playing Sparty, the toughest out in the Big Ten. Only the Buckeyes can claim to have reached heights greater than MSU’s in the last decade without contradiction, and while Wisconsin will argue that it has been to the Rose Bowl more often, the Spartans proved to be that rare Big Ten team capable of winning it.
Until last year. MSU’s 3-9 season in 2016 was an ugly, inexplicable conclusion to a decade of rebirth and rejuvenation under Mark Dantonio. Every weekend brought fresh humiliations, reopened old and seemingly healed wounds, and cast queasy doubt on whether the lipstick was coming off the Spartan sow for good.
The nadir was a 31-27 road loss to Illinois in week ten to keep Sparty winless in the conference, a loss that sealed the fate of MSU’s gruel-thin bowl hopes. It was a season so bad, a win over 4-8 Notre Dame was its highlight.
Now, dread, dread, hangs over the program, for the onset of football will require MSU fans not just to face last season’s depths, but also the scandals that an offseason has allowed them to avoid, sexual assaults that resulted in three players arrested and booted from the team, as well as the dismissal of one coach, plus the faint whiff of an attempted coverup.
In the wheel of time postulated by Chinese mystics, our calendar of luck loops every ten years. The tenth is when one comes face to face with unpaid psychic debts. Dantonio’s tenth season served as an atonement for whatever bad karma had accrued in being all elbows as his team jostled its way to the fore of the conference. But just as much, it was punishment for having dabbled in that same brash arrogance he once took pleasure in disavowing.
When a team performs so poorly, whispers about leadership are inevitable. Yet it is impossible to say that the glower on Mark’s face remains anything but the ideal look for Sparty’s sideline. MSU is an orthogonal outfit, a program that savors winning uglily, and can recall the backstory to every scar and knot of cartilage. Dantonio, the muse of that persona, is a perfect Nixonian blend of cloaked ambition and deep, deniable, gnawing insecurity. It is a persona at its most unnatural precisely when it tries to be natural; when it smiles.
It is a most Midwestern personality, for a Midwesterner suspects that behind every boon of fortune, penury lurks; that through the cracks of bankruptcy, saxifrage grows; and so one is wise to temper one’s emotion with caution, to watch luck unfold on mute.
For certain, dread tempers the average MSU fan’s natural excitement. Yet upon the toast of dread, one must heap the jam of ignorance and the butter of hope. No fanbase can be more justified in harboring the suspicion that the critics are wrong about what lies ahead for MSU, winners of 11 games in five of the past seven seasons.
Every year under Dantonio has proven someone, somewhere, wrong. Indeed, the Spartans have never come near the kind of blowout loss to Michigan that typified Mark’s predecessors. On the contrary, they’ve been the ones delivering the hurt to the Maize and Blue. What’s more, MSU has beaten Ohio State more times than any other Big Ten program since Urban Meyer took over. And Sparty could have notched another win last year, had the two-point conversion in what became a 17-16 loss gone the other way.
Let us contemplate that attempt, for little else offers a better indication of the large variance possible in MSU’s 2017 season than that play. In the end, it was not close to succeeding. But when it was called, you just didn’t know. All you could do was admire the daring shown in heaping one’s sack onto the poker table and making an all-in call. Even if the Green & White are bluffing — indeed, especially when they are bluffing — it is never possible to know.
Yes, if Spartan football has a face, it is contorted in a steely grimace; if an eye, it is Dantonio’s as the two-point conversion call is sent onto the field. As the fate of the 2016 season teetered on the cusp of redemption — for having come up short in the comeback against Michigan, no win would have been sweeter than a home win over hated OSU, which Dantonio, in his secret heart, may still ambition to coach — Mark’s poker face didn’t change. Yet a small hope could be observed flickering in his eye, a bare, hoary hope that perhaps it is true what one preaches: an avalanche of suffering and ten years of disrespect is worth a moment of glee; that self-flagellation ends in pride, and Their Lord is just.
Best Case Scenario
Beating Michigan. No matter the heights the Spartans have reached, and they’ve been high — much higher than the Wolverines this century — beating Michigan is still the win most savory. It redeems bad seasons, super-charges good ones, and means another year of owning the trash talk and gagging the rival. Doing so in Ann Arbor will be all the sweeter, especially if Michigan amounts to much…and more appalling if MSU doesn’t.
Worst Case Scenario
Losses and worse. Falling out of bowl contention before Halloween and having that be only a secondary source of dread. More unsportsmanlike conduct off the field, that ubiquitous euphemism for everywhere else in the world but a tiny greensward which becomes smaller and less important with each allegation, charge, and dismissal. Off the field, where some Spartans continue to target, encroach, hold, and rough, committing personal fouls and thinking it play.
Dread becomes acute misery as the front page supplants the sports page, the Spartans become fodder for Outside the Lines, and football Saturdays bleed into Tuesday morning hearings in Ingham County Court. Big Ten opponents are overshadowed by accusers, alleged victims, recriminations. “We’re going to let the legal process play out.” But it doesn’t matter how the legal process plays out. By season’s end, off the field impropriety appears endemic to Dantonio’s program, and there aren’t enough wins on it to offer adequate cover.
Most Likely Case Scenario
After getting past Bowling Green, surviving an OT romp with Western Michigan, and getting whipped by Notre Dame, the Spartans enter the Iowa game, which is everything to their season. Win and they’ve proven themselves, if only to themselves; lose and it’s the start of another bad fall. Manhandled on both sides of the line, the Spartans crack for good in the third quarter, victims of their lack of depth. The Michigan game is unwatchable; Lewerke’s unconscious learns to summon Rashan Gary when in need of a nightmare imago. Winning one of their next three against Minny, Indiana, and Northwestern, the Spartans cling to thinning bowl hopes. They take Penn State to the limit — and here again the season can turn, the Spartans can notch that Fuck You win against a ranked team that is their signature when their backs are to the wall. But again they fail, giving up a late fourth quarter lead. Dantonio spits bitterly into the Astroturf. They roll over against Ohio State to get snuffed out of bowl contention for good, rendering their tilts against Maryland and Rutgers irrelevant. They just might lose one, but if they hold on, a 5-7 season of absolutely no highlights is in the cards, and Dantonio, having spent most of the goodwill he’s accrued, enters next season on the hot seat.
Did You Know?
Muddy Waters, the worst head coach in Spartan history, was triumphantly carried off the field following his final loss to Iowa.
Last year was a depressing turn for Michigan State fans accustomed to a certain statistical excellence. In recent years, Connor Cook posted terrific fantasy stats, but last year the Sparty QB was a veritable black hole. In later games, Brian Lewerke showed some promise, but his receiver corps is unproven. The Michigan State team, as a whole, looks like it’s in for another subpar year, and that’s likely to drag Lewerke’s value down with it. Damion Terry is a capable runner and backup. For those looking to the future, wondering whether the savior will deliver, they’ll have to wait another year to see Messiah deWeaver.
This is one of the more stacked position groups in the conference. LJ Scott is a Weisman Trophy candidate who showed near the end of the year why he had first-round talent. Even in down MSU seasons, he can still post big numbers and is clearly the most talented offensive weapon on the field, capable of slamming home between 8 and 14 touchdowns. Behind him are two proven backups who will get plenty of run: Madre London (shiftier) and Gerald Holmes (thumpier). All three could be starters on many D1 teams and together they may just salvage the Michigan State fantasy season.
The great run of Michigan State wide receivers overshadows what could morph into a very productive group. But for preseason fantasy handicapping purposes, it’s best to avoid this position group entirely. It’s hard to say who will emerge as the #1, but it’ll likely be one of the three players with limited experience: Trishton Jackson (5 career catches), Felton Davis III (14), and Darrell Stewart, Jr. (3). Newbies like Cam Chambers, Hunter Rison, and Cody White will get their chances.
Replacing one of the Big Ten’s best tight ends in Josiah Price is no easy feat, but junior Matt Sokol is 6’6”, 250 lbs and probably has huge feet.
Sensing a theme here? Michigan State is replacing Michael Geiger, one of the Big Ten’s better kickers, and it’s looking like a battle of young’uns between former top kicking recruit Matt Coghlin and new kicking recruit Cole Hahn, who really hates Cole Haan.
Last year’s defense was one of Dantonio’s worst ever, and there isn’t much reason for significant optimism coming into this season. There’s plenty of talent and a lot of grit, but the Spartans seem like they need another year at least to get out of the Big Ten cellar and reestablish the No Fly Zone. We recommend steering clear of the Spartan D until the later rounds of your draft.
Suggested viewing material:
MSU’s win over Notre Dame
Their loss to Michigan
Head coach Mark Dantonio looks forward to putting the future behind him