The current group of Michigan State Spartans have done something no group of Spartan players have done since 1962— beat Michigan four straight times. This year they also beat Ohio State in Columbus, and then beat the previously unbeaten Wisconsin badgers. And then—just when it looks like MSU is ready to roll to the Big Ten title game—they put up a dud in Lincoln against the Cornhuskers.
Is this team for real, or are they just toying with fans? Do they have the tools to be Big Ten champs, to finally win a bowl game? Or are they just playing above their skill level, or playing under it? Really who are these Spartans? Are they the team who brutalized Michigan, hung on to beat Wisconsin, and toughed out a win at OSU? Or are they the team who put up a total of three points against Nebraska, and 13 against Notre Dame?
Just who are these Spartans? Well the answer is probably somewhere in-between. MSU has a decent offense, a borderline great defense, and solid coaching. The losses can be defended to some degree. Against Notre Dame the coaches were still trying to figure out who the starting offensive line was going to be. Nebraska was the last of four very tough physical opponents, and it looked like the Spartans just ran out of gas in the second half.
I've thought since about week three or four, MSU should be ranked somewhere between 12-15 (they are currently ranked 17th in the BCS). Quarterback Kirk Cousins is accurate and makes good decisions (except for the Nebraska game). Their running by committee is very solid, led by Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell. On Defense, Jerel Worthy and William Gholston lead a deep defensive line, who have controlled the line of scrimmage and been one of the best against the run. Their secondary is pretty good as well, lead by corners Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard.
Is Michigan State a contender or a pretender?
One of the biggest issues I see with MSU is the lack of separation created by the wide receivers. In the Nebraska game the receivers weren't able to create enough separation to give Cousins room to make throws. I think MSU needs to run better than 60% of the time to force teams out of double teaming B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. The other issue with the receivers is a the lack of a true deep threat. Cunningham is good about catching balls that get to him, and usually he does a good job running routes, but he lacks elite size and speed. Martin is more quick than fast, when he gets the ball in space he is very dangerous and MSU needs to continue to find ways to get him the ball.
The other major issue is the number of penalties MSU commits. Against Michigan, MSU committed 13, against Nebraska they had nine. It's not just the number of penalties, its the timing. MSU allows opponents to extend drives which other wise should have resulted in punts, but instead turn into points. Against good programs, those penalties are even more damaging. The Spartans are capable of playing a penalty free game (see Wisconsin), but they don't do it enough.
Michigan State still has a good chance of being able to play for the initial Big Ten championship, but they will need to play better, and will need some help from others. The most difficult games remaining for MSU is against Iowa and Northwestern. Nebraska owns the head to head tie breaker against MSU, but has to play Penn State (No. 16), Michigan (No. 15), and Iowa. If MSU goes undefeated and Nebraska losses one game it would give MSU a spot in the championship game.
If the Spartans are going to have a chance to win the Big Ten championship they need to see improvement along their offensive line. They need to run to set up the pass, and find more ways to get Martin the ball. Finally they need their defense to play disciplined controlled defense. If they do these things they will not only have a great shot at the first Big Ten championship, but they will also have a great chance of finally winning a bowl game.