They were right. Michigan State's defense hasn't been the same, after losing veterans at every level and one of the best corners in the nation. State is allowing almost 300 yards a game, up from 252 a year ago, and their passing yards allowed have also jumped about 50. And yet, this is still Sparta.
The best team in the state has not only upgraded their offense, but injected raw athleticism at every level of both sides of the ball and laid the foundation for some dominant defensive teams of 2015 and '16. On offense, Jeremy Langford and Connor Cook have barely touched the ball when Michigan State has played cupcakes; outside of the Oregon game, Cook has attempted 31 passes and Langford has run 38 times, or barely 10 touches per contest for each of them.
What this has done is open up playing time for other guys, both young and old. Delton Williams, a second-year player and backup running back, ran for 103 yards against EMU. Josiah Price, just a sophomore, has gotten settled in and gives MSU a good tight end threat. Keith Mumphery, a senior wide receiver who hasn't gotten a lot of touches but has put in the work, was rewarded with 3 rushes for 46 yards (15.3 ypc) against Wyoming. Senior Nick Hill, a backup running back whose biggest drawback is not being Jeremy Langford, has gotten his chance to be the lead back, in his last season of college ball. Everyone is healthy, everyone stays sharp, morale stays high, hard work is rewarded, and the players on the field maximize their effort on every down. Basically, they have been a machine.
The machine has put up better numbers on offense than on defense, and while the schedule favors that somewhat, it may be a permanent note on this Spartans team. The defense will be getting stronger with more reps, but they've put up the third-most points in the country - with back-ups. Waiting in the wings, unnoticed, guys like Malik McDowell, Montae Nicholson, Montez Sweat, and Demetrious Cox are getting their reps and growing into the next wave of defensive stalwarts. They aren't making headlines yet, but Michigan State doesn't need them to this year.
This longevity and balance bodes well for a Spartan team that exists in a league that has lately not produced well-rounded teams. And while it's a bit premature to hand MSU the league for a second straight year... consider this. It seemed likely before the season that the best group of corners in the Big Ten East would lead their team to a division title, given the quarterback talent that existed there. But that hasn't totally proven correct. For one, Braxton Miller, Devin Gardner, and Nate Sudfeld have all struggled or been injured. Christian Hackenberg has played well, but Penn State's offensive line has crippled the run game and forced Hack into 6 interceptions. MSU's corners are one of their only weaknesses, and yet they're hoarding the indisputably best passing quarterback in the league. Hackenberg is the only other great QB, but his team can't match MSU. Nebraska and Wisconsin can't reliably pass. J.T. Barrett and Ohio State is the Spartans' best overall test, but they have to head to East Lansing. Given that the Spartans are a better overall team this year than last, it's at least safe to say it's MSU's until someone takes it away.
The solution is well-known and obvious. It's been beaten senseless. The rest of the league has to catch up, and it can't get away with one-dimensional teams anymore. But it's a problem that isn't going away, especially for the Wolverines, who now have to contend with a developmental program right next door that's consistently getting its hands on four-star talent. Michigan wants to take back the Big Ten, so perhaps it's fitting that the battle starts and ends inside the state.
Hitting the Links Is Still Furious
Cincinnati has a good pass attack and a pretty good coach, but these are the same problems OSU has had for a while.
DonAZ has the best quote of all in the comments section.
FOX Sports looks at the most competitive divisions in the land. Fun fact: the SEC West is 28-3, and all three losses are within the division. Scroll further down for news on Charlie Weis' firing (about time) and a Heisman Top 6.
This piece by Grantland looks at Steve Spurrier's time at South Carolina.
This relates to Michigan in the sense that people have made a similar case that Michigan means as much for the Big Ten's overall perception. This season feels like a mulligan for Texas, between the number of dismissals (nine at last count) and the season-ending injury to David Ash.
This is a link post with some easy-to-peruse links about some of what's plaguing UW right now.
For those who are still scratching their heads over that one.
A cool fact about Yale, as well.
This breaks down some of the numbers going into this week's matchup.
Rutgers-Michigan has a very different narrative than anyone would have thought going into the year. Also, Rutgers' defensive line has been much more disruptive and effective than some (read: I) had predicted.
It's simple: the bottom half of the conference has to try to compete. It's a tired trope at this point, but nothing will change until that does.
After one of the lowest points of Michigan fandom in a long time, this is a pleasant and inspiring link.
...while we're going full-healing mode.