Finally, Michigan State-Boise State kickoff is within 24 hours! The Big Ten’s hottest team the past four years against the best “mid-major” football program in the country will battle in front of a national television audience. It’s a matchup that has been talked about at nausea for months but, nevertheless, there are still some things to discuss.
WELCOME TO THE NEW ERA: You’ve heard the saying that college football’s unpredictability begins and ends with the fact it is played by kids. So much is expected from these 18 to 22 year olds, more than anyone of us can even imagine. Seriously, can you comprehends people seemingly living to see you succeed on a football field and, if on a given Saturday you have an off day, you’ve let hundreds of thousands of people down? It’s unimaginable. That’s college football today. And while both Boise State and Michigan State have had nice runs in recent years, both sides have so many question marks that actually trying to forecast what is going to happen is like throwing darts.
Start with Boise State. In Head Coach Chris Peterson’s six-year tenure the Broncos are a combined 73-6. The past four seasons the Broncos are a likely-never-to-be-duplicated 50-3. The catalyst of those teams, Kellen Moore, is now in the NFL (either as the Lions third-string quarterback or as a member of some team’s practice squad). Moore wasn’t the reason Boise won more than 94 percent of its games from 2008-2011, but he’s a big part of the reason. He doesn’t have a great arm – definitely not an NFL arm – but he’s a smart football player. His decision making was truly what elevated him to greatness at the college level. Heck, if not for a few botched last-second field goals he could have been an insane 52-1 as a college quarterback.
Also missing are Doug Martin, the diminutive running back who rushed for 1,299 yards and totaled 18 touchdowns in 2011 and Moore’s No. 1 WR Tyler Shoemaker (994 yards, 16 touchdowns). (It should be noted that Martin was also the team’s main kick returner, averaging 33.8 yards per return including a 100-yard touchdown). That’s just the offense. Of Boise State’s top 10 tacklers from last year only linebacker JC Percy (48 tackles, one tackle for loss and one interception) returns.
Michigan State’s offense will look completely different as well. As I wrote in yesterday’s MSU Big Ten Preview, the Spartans literally sent their entire package of skill position players to the NFL. QB Kirk Cousins, RB Edwin Baker, WR Keshawn Martin and WR B.J. Cunningham were all drafted while WR Keith Nichol and TE Brian Linthicum graduated. If you’re counting on your laptop, iPhone, iPad or Droid, that’s 3316 passing yards, 804 rushing yards, 2,859 receiving yards, and 32 touchdowns (52 if you double-dip by counting passing/receiving TDs for both Cousins and the wide receiver).
The difference is that the Spartans seemingly were prepared for this type of departure and have the depth (read: guys with some experience and talent to fill the voids). New quarterback Andrew Maxwell was a four-star recruit out of high school. That’s something most people tend to forget when you redshirt one year and sit for another two years behind a guy who ends up becoming Michigan State’s winningest quarterback. Maxwell’s arm has been described as being better than Cousins’ so fans expecting a major drop off (likely Michigan fans or any other team hoping the Spartans face plant) are likely to be disappointed.
What can’t be ignored is the gaping hole at wide receiver. The leading receiver back – excluding Le’Veon Bell, whose 35 catches and 267 receiving yards would make him the No. 1 WR stat wise – is Dion Sims. At 12 catches for 99 yards and three touchdowns a fan base can’t become that giddy, especially because he’s a tight end. Bennie Fowler is the only player on the depth chart to actually start a game at wide receiver for the Spartans. Adding Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett (24 catches, 242 yards, two touchdowns for the Vols as a true freshman last season) will be a big boost, but one of the key guys at wideout this year is going to be Tony Lippett, a guy who played defensive back for much of 2011.
ANOTHER BIG GAME FOR BOTH TEAMS: Regardless of where you fall on the Boise State fan-o-meter (love ‘em, hate ‘em, could care less about ‘em), you have to respect the Broncos. Yes, the Broncos play in an inferior conference (moving from the Western Athletic Conference to the Mountain West helps) but Petersen has never shied away from playing tough teams. Since 2006, Peterson’s first season, Boise State is 8-1 against BCS schools. The last three years Boise State put the marquee game at the beginning of the schedule. Each year Boise State was favored but by a tight margin. And each year, while some people expected the Broncos to fold in the national spotlight, the Broncos delivered a win. In 2009, Boise State entered as a 3-point home favorite against Oregon and won, 19-8. In 2010 it was a neutral-site game against Virginia Tech and the Broncos covered the one-point spread with a 33-30 win. Last season the Broncos, favored by three points, dominated one of the SEC’s darlings in Georgia, 35-21. To find where all this momentum really started, go back to 2008 when Boise State traveled to Eugene, Oregon to face the Ducks. As a 10-point underdog the Broncos won, 37-32. That win catapulted the Broncos from unranked to No. 17 the following week. Since that victory the Broncos have never been unranked, peaking as high as No. 2 and, for the most part, finding themselves in the lower half of the Top 10.
Michigan State’s big-game trophy case isn’t quite as filled as Boise’s these days, but the Spartans have turned yearly Big Ten showdowns with Wisconsin into must-see TV. The same can be said for games against Notre Dame. And, with the team’s success under Mark Dantonio the team has squared off against some marquee teams in bowl games (2007’s Champs Sports Bowl was against the Matt Ryan-led Boston College Eagles; 2008’s Capital One Bowl was against the Matthew Stafford-led Georgia Bulldogs; 2010’s Capital One Bowl was against the “worst” Alabama team in the past three years, a squad bookended by national championships; Last year was another clash with Georgia, this one a 33-30 victory in triple overtime, MSU’s first bowl victory since 2001).
MAGIC IN THE AIR TONIGHT: Night games, believe it or not, are a fairly new fad in college football. This will be just the 12thnight game all time at Spartan Stadium with the Spartans holding a 7-4 record in those contests. Of course, you probably don’t remember any other night games besides the last two: Michigan State’s Cousins-to-Nichol Hail Mary (“Rocket”) to beat Wisconsin last season and the fake field goal in overtime (“Little Giants”) to beat Notre Dame in 2010. Needless to say there is definitely some nighttime magic in East Lansing.
FINAL ANALYSIS: Both teams will be ironing out some kinks, but the rawness of Boise State’s defense is going to be a major problem. Even if Maxwell has trouble throwing the ball – he shouldn’t with taller receivers against Boise State’s smaller secondary – MSU’s experienced offensive line should dominate the line of scrimmage allowing Bell, Larry Caper, and Nick Hill to run wild. I would expect the Spartans to control the ball and game’s tempo from the opening kickoff. I wouldn’t expect any magic from the Spartans this time around because it likely won’t be needed. Expect one of those games that has its thrilling moments but won’t live up to its hype. Michigan State wins a ho-hum contest, 24-12.