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Michigan State Football: Do We Really Know How Good the Spartans Are?

Nov 2, 2013; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans linebacker Max Bullough (40) before the snap of the ball during the 2nd half of a game against the Michigan Wolverines at Spartan Stadium. MSU won 29-6. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew CoppensContributor INovember 11, 2013

When the preseason rankings came out, Michigan State was a distant third in the Legends Division race, finishing behind favorites Michigan and Nebraska

After 11 weeks of the season, though, it's the underdogs of Michigan State that are in complete control of the Legends Division race.

They are just one of two remaining unbeaten teams in Big Ten play and are No. 16 in the most recent BCS rankings—the second highest of any team in the Big Ten.

Should the Spartans win this weekend against Nebraska, it will mean they need just one more win to cement the division title. 

Nov 2, 2013; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans quarterback Connor Cook (18) celebrates a touchdown during the 2nd half of a game against the Michigan Wolverines at Spartan Stadium. MSU won 29-6. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

That's an impressive resume for a team that all but four of the 32 polled media members said wasn't going to win the division.

Yet a further examination of the Spartans' resume begs the question, do we honestly know how good the Spartans are? 

There is no denying that the defensive numbers for the Spartans are impressive.

Michigan State is giving up just 11.6 points a game, 210.2 total yards, 43.4 rushing yards and 166.8 passing yards a game to opponents—all tops in the Big Ten.

But if you examine the offenses Michigan State has faced so far, the numbers tell an interesting story. 

Opponent Scoring Offenses (FBS Opponents Only)
TeamScoring Offense (w/o MSU)Overall Scoring OffenseNational Rank
Western Michigan17.4ppg17ppg118th
South Florida16.7ppg15.4ppg121st
Notre Dame29.4ppg28.2ppg72nd
Iowa28ppg26.6ppg80th
Indiana45ppg43.1ppg10th
Purdue13.3ppg11.8ppg123rd
Illinois33ppg29.7ppg64th
Michigan38.8ppg35.1ppg32nd
ESPN.com

The Spartans have held each of their eight FBS opponents to their lowest or second-lowest score of the season (four teams held to season lows, four teams held to second-lowest scores). 

Yet all of that has come against a schedule that features just two offenses (Indiana and Michigan) that currently rank in the top half of scoring offenses in FBS football. 

On the other side of the ball, things haven't always been good, but the Spartans have steadily progressed offensively. 

However, has that progress been masked by a schedule that features some, well, not-so-good defenses?

Opponent Scoring Defenses
TeamPoints Against AverageNational Rank
Western Michigan36.5108th
South Florida31.390th
Notre Dame23.546th
Iowa18.713th
Indiana37.4114th
Purdue37.2112th
Illinois34.7106th
Michigan25.961st
ESPN.com

In the past four weeks, only one defense the Spartans faced ranks in the top half of FBS scoring defenses. Not surprisingly, Michigan State's offense has put up its three highest-scoring totals of the season against FBS opponents. 

At the same time, it also managed to put up the second-fewest points (14) of the season against Purdue, a team that hasn't given up fewer than 31 points to any other FBS opponent so far this season. 

After seeing the numbers, one can't help but wonder if Michigan State's resume is a bit inflated due to its defensive reputation and a lack of challenge from opposing defenses.

For instance, Ohio State, the leader of the Leaders Division, has faced the same number of top-half offenses but has faced four opposing defenses ranked in the top half of FBS football.

Ohio State Opposing Scoring Defenses
TeamScoring AverageRank
Buffalo20.724th
San Diego St.32.395th
Cal44.7124th
Wisconsin15.25th
Northwestern2662nd
Iowa18.713th
Penn State27.372nd
Purdue37.2112th
NCAA.com

The results against those four top-half defenses? Forty points on Buffalo, 31 on Wisconsin, 40 on Northwestern and 34 on Iowa—all well over the season averages given up.  

Michigan State against the three top-half defenses it has faced? A grand total of seven offensive touchdowns and an average of 23 points a game. 

More than anything else, what really hurts Michigan State is the fact that Ohio State and Wisconsin were replaced by Illinois and Purdue as its crossover games in the rotation. 

Additionally, the one team with a good offense and defense, Notre Dame, ended up handing the Spartans their only loss. 

The one win MSU could point to and hang its hat on was over Iowa, which was on the road and against a team that has one of the best defenses in the country statistically.

However, as we go further into the season, that win doesn't inspire the kind of confidence one would hope—Iowa is just 6-4 on the season.  

The reality for the Spartans is this: They can only play the schedule they are given, and the defense has proven it is more than good enough to win games, no matter what the offense is doing.

Michigan State will still have a chance to prove itself to the doubters against Minnesota to end the year, as well as with a likely matchup against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Win those games, and Michigan State has all the proof it would need to be considered for real.

 

Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for the Big Ten. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens.

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