Just a season removed from winning the Big Ten Championship and playing in the College Football Playoff, Michigan State will now be playing Rutgers next Saturday for the title of "not the worst team in the Big Ten East."
Michigan State has experienced the biggest fall in school history, losing seven straight games and falling to 2-7 overall (and 0-6 in the Big Ten) in the same year it was ranked in the top ten of the national polls. They have lost to the likes of Maryland, Indiana, BYU, Illinois, and Northwestern—none of which are good—and still need to play Ohio State and Penn State. At best, the Spartans will go 3-9 this year. At worst, they'll lose to Rutgers, which is a legitimate possibility.
Everything has gone so wrong this season, but we should have seen at least some of it coming. The MSU offense couldn't pick a quarterback all off-season, and unsurprisingly, none of the options turned out to be very good. Tyler O'Connor never came close to winning the starting job until his senior year, and he's waffled between starter and backup as he's struggled this season. With such inconsistent play at quarterback, you can't expect much more than a mediocre offense, and that's exactly what MSU has been, ranking 64th nationally in yards per play.
The most shocking development, however, has been the (lack of) defense. Under coach Mark Dantonio, Michigan State has been known for its stellar defenses, but this year, despite having stars like Malik McDowell and Riley Bullough, the Spartans defense hasn't come close to living up to its past success. They've given up at least 5.7 yards per play in each of their last four games, three of those against very middling offenses in Northwestern, Maryland, and Illinois.
The big question now is whether Michigan State can maintain the power status it has held in college football despite the odds. Most elite teams have elite recruits, but the Spartans are an exception. They've remained competitive without top recruits, instead relying on a combination of 1) getting lucky on quarterback recruiting, 2) division-mates Michigan and Penn State being historically weak, and 3) great player development.
The first measure was really never sustainable—MSU wasn't going to keep turning three-star recruits into NFL draft picks and college stars. At some point, too, Michigan and Penn State were going to make comebacks. Michigan has now, and Penn State appears to be getting closer. Historically, the Spartans should be the fourth best team in the Big Ten East, and this seems to be the year the regression starts.
What's next for the Michigan State program? Perhaps Dantonio's player development skills can keep the Spartans punching above their weight. But while 2-7 is a disaster of a season, there might be more of those years than division titles in the seasons to come.