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2021 Michigan State college football preview: The Mel Tucker Era enters Year Two

With an actual full offseason to get his hands on the program, can Mel Tucker start to manifest his vision for the Spartans in 2021?

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han via Imagn Content Services, LLC

COVID-19 presented obstacles for every college football program across the country and that was especially true for teams breaking in brand-new coaches. The Michigan State Spartans were the poster children for that issue.

Arriving in February, head coach Mel Tucker was already trying to play catchup as to establishing himself in East Lansing before the pandemic blew up his opportunity to get acclimated with his personnel in the spring. And it showed during MSU’s abbreviated 2020 season as they put out a bottom 20 unit on offense, and were blown out by 24 points or more in three of their losses.

There were glimmers of hope however as they managed wins against in-state rival Michigan and Big Ten title game participant Northwestern, all while fielding one of the better defenses in the nation, a unit that ranked 12th in SP+. Now with a full offseason under his belt and some key transfers filling holes, Tucker looks to move his rebuild project forward.

2020 Season Review

  • 2-5 (conference only schedule), 7th in Big Ten East
  • Michigan State was gashed by two scores or more in all five of their losses in 2020.

2021 Talent

2021 247Sports Composite Ranking: 45th
ESPN Returning Production: 69% overall (64th): 80% offense (37th), 59% defense (99th)
Returning Talent Index: Negative, 11th in Big 10
Returning starters: 7/11 offense, 7/11 defense
* All rankings out of 130 FBS schools

Key Player

Quarterback: Anthony Russo (Senior)/Payton Thorne (Sophomore)

The headlining story of Michigan State’s fall camp will be who emerges out of the QB competition between Anthony Russo and Payton Thorne on top.

Russo arrives to East Lansing as a transfer after serving as the starting quarterback for Temple for three seasons. “AR-15” amassed 6,292 passing yards and 44 touchdowns with the Owls and improved his accuracy each season, completing 68.1 percent of his passes last year. Thorne got plenty of burn behind MSU starter Rocky Lombardi last year, throwing for 582 yards, three touchdowns, and three interceptions in 2020.

Offense (non-QB): WR Jalen Nailor (Junior)

Whoever emerges as QB1 will have an reliable weapon in Jalen Nailor to lean on through the fall. A product out of powerhouse Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, Nailor led the Big Ten in yards per reception (19.8) last season, hauling in 26 catches for 515 yards and four touchdowns.

Defense: DE Jacub Panasiuk (Senior)

Jacub Panasiuk enters the 2021 as a grizzled veteran on the MSU defensive line, having made 30 career starts throughout his tenure in East Lansing. In six games for a stingy Spartan defense last season, he compiled 25 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and one sack.

Team Stats Projections

2020 SP+ final: 65th overall: 109th offense, 12th defense, 69th special teams
2021 SP+ projection: 59th overall: 94th offense, 18th defense

Odds from DraftKings Sportsbook

To win national title: +100000
To win Big Ten: +5000
Win total: 4.5 (Over -139, Under +110)

2020 Against The Spread: 2-5
2020 Point Total: Over 5-2

2021 Michigan State Schedule

2021 Michigan State Football Schedule

Date Opponent Time (ET)/TV Spread/Total
Date Opponent Time (ET)/TV Spread/Total
Thursday, Sep. 2 at Northwestern 9:00 pm/ESPN MSU +6
Saturday, Sep. 11 Youngstown State 12:00 pm/BTN N/A
Saturday, Sep. 18 at Miami (FL) 12:00 pm/ABC or ESPN MSU +16
Saturday, Sep. 25 Nebraska TBA MSU +4
Saturday, Oct. 2 Western KY 7:30 pm/TBA MSU -14.5
Saturday, Oct. 9 at Rutgers 12:00 pm/TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 16 at Indiana 12:00 pm/TBA MSU +16.5
Saturday, Oct. 23 OPEN TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 30 Michigan TBA MSU +6.5
Saturday, Nov. 6 at Purdue TBA MSU +5.5
Saturday, Nov. 13 Maryland TBA MSU -2.5
Saturday, Nov. 20 at Ohio State TBA MSU +26.5
Saturday, Nov. 27 Penn State TBA MSU +13