Michigan State is on top of the Big Ten football world right now, having won the conference and the Rose Bowl heading into 2014. That means the guys over at The Only Colors are in a great mood. Joe Tuohey of TOC was happy to talk about the Spartans as they returned to Purdue's schedule in the fall:
T-Mill: The Purdue-MSU game last year should have been a bloodbath, but as bad as Purdue was at that point, it was competitive. What happened?
Joe: First of all, thanks for having me! Always great to chat with some B1G brethren.
One thing I'd like to point out is just how competitive these games have been in recent memory. The 2010 game was absolutely terrifying as an MSU fan; I didn't expect to need a blocked punt in the fourth quarter to win that game. The 2009 game featured the 15-yard penalty on Ralph Bolden for hugging Purdue Pete in the second quarter, which resulted in an MSU field goal on a short field (the final margin was 3). To be fair, Purdue Pete is really creepy and should never be hugged. Regardless, I think part of it is that you guys have some confidence against MSU.
This game was an interesting data point over the course of the season. It appeared that MSU's offense had turned a corner in the early part of the Big Ten schedule, but this game (along with the Minnesota game) really showed there was still work to do. The growth of QB Connor Cook and the receiving corps of Tony Lippett, Bennie Fowler, and Macgarrett Kings happened in fits and starts. This game was one of those fits. Cook's 4.3 yards per attempt was atrocious and he was saved by a rather heroic effort by Jeremy Langford.
On the other side of the ball, Purdue did something really unusual: move the ball (sort-of) efficiently but didn't manage big plays. Last year's MSU defense was tops in the county in play efficiency according to Bill Connelly's S&P+ metrics, but would occasionally give up a big play. Purdue was able to grind out some drives with 14 first downs, but those sputtered out and the two missed field goals hurt.
T-Mill: Will there be some dropoff this year defensively or will things be as good as last year?
Joe: It's really tough to be as good as the 2013 MSU defense, and the unit loses three of the best MSU defenders of all time in Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, and Denicos Allen. Just 5 starters in total return. Per Bill Connelly, that typically results in a dropoff of 2.6% in Defensive F/+, which would still put MSU third in the country.
I'm not quite that optimistic, as it would be unbelievable to have a top-five defense four years in a row. It will take some leaps forward from relatively unproven guys like Junior linebackers Ed Davis and Darien Harris, and Sophomore corner Darian Hicks to get back to last year's level. I'd look for MSU to be in the top 10 to 15 nationally next year.
T-Mill: The offense looks like it could be scary good with all that is returning, plus a strong defense. What are your chances of a repeat?
Joe: MSU is definitely in the top tier of Big Ten contenders along with OSU and whoever comes out of the wide-open west (hey, I kind of like that phrase). We know just about anything can happen in that title game, so that's tough to predict. The recently announced night game in East Lansing with OSU visiting on November 8th will likely decide who goes to Indianapolis from the East Division.
I do see a half-step back on defense, but the improvement offensively might make that not matter. The offensive line is a little re-built but there are four guys returning with significant starting experience. This spring and summer is a big one for Connor Cook's development, and I hope to see more consistent footwork from him. If the offense can go from 43rd in F/+ to Top-25, watch out.
T-Mill: Is Purdue a bit of a trap game, especially if it comes it with some momentum after an easier non-conference schedule?
Joe: Coming off a game at home against Nebraska, with rival Michigan on the docket two weeks afterwards, this does smack of trap game a little bit. That said, it's still the second Big Ten game of the season and this team will be definitely looking to get back to the B1GCG so early on. In his tenure at MSU, Mark Dantonio is 21-13 on the road, including 3-1 in Big Ten road games in 2012. Strangely enough, the game would be more of a trap if it were played in East Lansing.
T-Mill: Mostly out of curiosity, what is your argument for making last year's BCS title game over Auburn?
Joe: My colleague Heck Dorland at TOC did a great job of breaking this down here(http://www.theonlycolors.com/2013/12/8/5189772/we-shoulda-been-a-contenda) if you want more information.
Mostly, MSU totally dominated the Big Ten. All nine wins were by double digits. The sole loss to Notre Dame was by four points in a terribly officiated game. Auburn, on the other hand, was 6-0 in one-possession games and required a miracle last-second play to beat Alabama.
The thing that really grinds my gears is the fact that Auburn finished second in the final polls despite having a worse record. That is total, complete, #narrative bias towards the SEC. MSU beat two major teams at the end of the season, convincingly. This doesn't totally matter this year, but it does set the expectation for the selection committee next year. That might make a difference when it comes to a playoff berth.[/end rant]
Thanks for having me!