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

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Michigan State Football: Do We Really Know How Good the Spartans Are?
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

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. 

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)
Team Scoring Offense (w/o MSU) Overall Scoring Offense National Rank
Western Michigan 17.4ppg 17ppg 118th
South Florida 16.7ppg 15.4ppg 121st
Notre Dame 29.4ppg 28.2ppg 72nd
Iowa 28ppg 26.6ppg 80th
Indiana 45ppg 43.1ppg 10th
Purdue 13.3ppg 11.8ppg 123rd
Illinois 33ppg 29.7ppg 64th
Michigan 38.8ppg 35.1ppg 32nd

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
Team Points Against Average National Rank
Western Michigan 36.5 108th
South Florida 31.3 90th
Notre Dame 23.5 46th
Iowa 18.7 13th
Indiana 37.4 114th
Purdue 37.2 112th
Illinois 34.7 106th
Michigan 25.9 61st

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
Team Scoring Average Rank
Buffalo 20.7 24th
San Diego St. 32.3 95th
Cal 44.7 124th
Wisconsin 15.2 5th
Northwestern 26 62nd
Iowa 18.7 13th
Penn State 27.3 72nd
Purdue 37.2 112th

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. 

Has Michigan State Done Enough to be the Big Ten's Second-Best Team?

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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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