Michigan State, Not Michigan, Is Biggest BCS Sleeper in Big Ten

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistAugust 20, 2013

TEMPE, AZ - DECEMBER 29:  Head coach Mark Dantonio of the Michigan State Spartans stands with his team before taking the field for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against the TCU Horned Frogs at Sun Devil Stadium on December 29, 2012 in Tempe, Arizona. The Spartans defeated the Horned Frogs 17-16.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Ohio State is a heavy, borderline-unanimous favorite to win the Big Ten, making every team behind it, by definition, a sleeper.

Michigan, Nebraska and even Northwestern are mentioned as potential spoilers to Brutus, all ranked in the AP and coaches' top 25 and all capable of beating Ohio State if they bring their A-game. Folks who don't want to see Urban Meyer in the BCS National Championship Game—and there are plenty of them—will be counting on those teams to show up.

But little is said of Michigan State, the Wolverines' "little brother," a team that wasn't bowl-eligible until its final game last year. After losing workhorses like Le'Veon Bell, Dion Sims, William Gholston and Johnny Adams from a 7-6 squad, how could the Spartans possibly be expected to compete?

Those questions, however, ignore the ebbs and flow of football. Michigan State lost five conference games by a total of 13 points last season, and close-game success tends to normalize from year to year. It finished 15th in Football Outsiders' F/+ rankings, one spot behind Ohio State for best in the conference and five spots ahead of in-state rival Michigan.

Since the earliest recorded season of F/+ in 2005, only one six-loss team has ever finished as high as 2012 Michigan State. That team, 2011 Texas A&M, which also finished 15th in F/+, entered the following season with major question marks at quarterback and wasn't expected to accomplish much of anything.

Obviously, it had much different plans.

Michigan State isn't just a sleeper because it will improve in 2013. It will, but that's not the whole point. Michigan State is a BCS threat this season because it should have been last season, too.

Why else is Michigan State such a strong bounce-back candidate? It starts with positional density. MSU is loaded where it's hardest to fake. Offensive line: check. Defensive line: check. Linebackers and secondary: check and check.

The question marks exist at skill positions—places where casual fans see red flags, but diehards know it's easier to cover up. Better a shaky running back committee than a stable of offensive linemen. Better receivers who can't gain separation than corners who can't prevent it. With the latter, games can get out of hand quickly. The former allows a team to stay close.

That Sparty lost those five conference games by a total of 13 points is a testament to the sheer dominance of its defense. That unit finished second in Football Outsiders' rush defense S&P+ and first in its pass defense metric—balance even Alabama couldn't boast.

With Max Bullough, Marcus Rush, Tyler Hoover, Darqueze Dennard, Denicos Allen, Lawrence Thomas, Taiwan Jones, Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond all back in East Lansing, there are more reasons to expect improvement than decline.

The defense, once again, will be one of the nation's best.

Beyond that, Michigan State gets the benefit of a favorable schedule—the main reason it should be favored to win the Big Ten Legends. It misses out on Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin from the Leaders, instead facing Indiana, Purdue and Illinois.

(By contrast, Michigan gets Ohio State at home, avoids Wisconsin but has to play Penn State on the road. It also has to play MSU in East Lansing).

A nonconference trip to Notre Dame might end in a loss, but that mark would have no bearing on MSU's Rose Bowl hopes. The game in South Bend is essentially a win-win: Even if they lose on the scoreboard, playing last year's BCS runner-up will duly prepare them for Big Ten play.

Seemingly the only ones who recognize MSU's potential, again, are the folks at Football Outsiders—the sport's most advanced (and revered) source of sabermetrics. Contributing to ESPN Insider, FO statistician Brian Fremeau wrote:

Our FEI projections like Michigan State to win the division for a number of reasons, but most notably due to its favorable conference schedule...[W]e give Michigan State a 79 percent chance of winning at least six conference games.

He then goes on to write about MSU's poor close-game record last season:

According to our data, Michigan State had unusual luck work against it in close games and played more like a nine-win team last season than a seven-win one. That works in its favor in the projection model, as events like turnovers and close-game success tend to even out over time.

In May, Fremeau gave Michigan State a 40 percent chance of going 7-1 or 8-0 in Big Ten play and a 20 percent chance of winning the conference. If it gets to the conference championship, and if Ohio State is indeed the opponent, it would be a rematch of last year's one-point Buckeye win in East Lansing.

No matter what OSU fans say, Michigan State is the last team they want to see in Indianapolis. 

There is one thing to be worried about. Kirk Cousins and Brian Hoyer, the two successful quarterbacks Dantonio has coached in East Lansing, have both turned into legitimate NFL players. Neither is a starter and perhaps never will be—but both certainly belong on professional rosters.

That type of next-level success might speak well of Dantonio's quarterback grooming, but it also might indict his scheme. Maybe Michigan State only did well from 2007 to 2011 because it had two NFL quarterbacks. Maybe the secret to success in this system isn't play-calling but pro-caliber options under center.

And maybe this roster doesn't have one.

The race in East Lansing has expanded past Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook, now wholly involving Tyler O'Connor and true freshman Damion Terry. Whoever wins the job will have been the victor of a brutal competition—and they'll be a better player because of it. No matter who wins, Dantonio will feel better about the position than he did last year.

His trepidation with first-time starter Maxwell was obvious in his play-calling. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, MSU attempted the second-most field goals in college football despite scoring the eighth-fewest touchdowns. It opted for guaranteed points when the consensus called for more aggressive plays.

That was the biggest problem with last year's offense and it was a result of uncertainty under center. If Dantonio truly feels better about whoever starts this year, it's a problem that should go away. And if the player who wins that job has earned it, the newfound aggression should pay dividends.

MSU's offense doesn't need to be Oregon's to win the Big Ten. It just needs to be good enough. The defense will take care of itself; the other guys just need to occasionally (as in, much more than last season) reach the end zone.

If it can, this is a team whose roster, schedule and recent history all suggest success. It's a team that's been forgotten for last year's record, but never really regressed. It's a team with a chip on its shoulder in a conference where (and because) one team thinks it can coast.

And come New Year's Day, it's a team that could be playing for the 100th Rose Bowl title. Even if Ohio State doesn't join it in Pasadena.


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