Michigan State Football Preview: Breaking Down 2021 Spartans’ Bowl Hopes

Written By Drew Ellis on August 17, 2021

With a “normal” offseason now under his belt, Mel Tucker can now show Michigan State football fans what he is trying to build.

The Spartans had a lot of roster turnover since the COVID-shortened 2020 season. Now, the question is how all the turnover will affect the 2021 MSU football team.

Oddsmakers aren’t feeling good about Michigan State this year, but are they not giving the Spartans enough credit?

Odds strongly against Michigan State Spartans

Not surprisingly, Michigan State was nowhere to be found in the initial College football rankings for the 2021 season.

Five Big Ten Conference teams (No. 4 Ohio State, No. 15 Wisconsin, No. 17 Indiana, No. 18 Iowa and No. 20 Penn State) find themselves ranked to start the season. MSU will meet up with three of those teams.

Oddsmakers see Michigan State as one of the biggest longshots to win the Big Ten. WynnBet Sportsbook lists the Spartans at +7500 to win the conference. Only Illinois is listed with longer odds (+15000).

When it comes to the College Football Playoff, Michigan State isn’t even registering odds in most cases. Caesars Sportsbook lists MSU at +30000 to win the national title.

For the over/under for regular season wins, DraftKings Sportsbook lists the Spartans at just 5 this year.

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Highs and lows in Mel Tucker’s debut season

When Tucker took over MSU from longtime coach Mark Dantonio, he couldn’t have predicted the adversity he would face in his first season.

His late arrival in the recruiting process was compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, leaving Tucker without the ability to install his new playbook until the fall of 2020.

The Spartans were hit by COVID-19 early in training camp and often looked out-of-sorts throughout the 2020 season.

Despite going just 2-5, MSU had some big high points with a 27-24 win at Michigan and a 29-20 win over Northwestern, the Big Ten West champion.

During the offseason, MSU saw a lot of roster changes. There are 40 players on the 2021 roster who weren’t with the team last year.

Although many see the roster overhaul as an improvement of talent, team chemistry could still be an issue this season.

Re-tooled Michigan State offense could provide spark

Michigan State was among the worst offensive teams in the nation last season. The Spartans averaged just 18 points and 330.3 yards per game.

MSU was all about a power ground game under Dantonio but averaged just 91.4 rushing yards per game last fall. That drop was due to offensive line struggles.

This year, MSU is hoping a relatively new line can open holes for transfer Kenneth Walker in the backfield. Walker rushed for 579 yards and 13 touchdowns last season for Wake Forest.

The Spartans will have a new starting quarterback this year. Temple transfer Anthony Russo is battling with sophomore Payton Thorne in camp for the starting spot.

Thorne threw for 582 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions in limited play last season. Russo had thrown for 6,000 yards with 44 touchdowns over three seasons with the Owls.

Defensively, MSU gave up 35.1 points per game last season, allowing far too many big plays.

Creating turnovers will be a challenge, as not a single returning Spartan had an interception in 2020.

Five key games to get to 6 wins

On paper, there are a lot of reasons to be concerned about Michigan State in 2021. However, the Spartans have had a prepotency to exceed expectations in “down” years.

Most agree that Tucker has improved the roster talent, so if this team can jell, Michigan State seems like a bowl contender.

With oddsmakers listing the win total at just five, there’s reason to feel like MSU can hit the over.

Ten of MSU’s 12 games currently have odds at DraftKings Sportsbook. The Spartans are the underdog in eight of them.

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Here’s the games that could be crucial to MSU getting to bowl eligibility in 2021.

  • Sept. 3 at Northwestern: Right off the bat, MSU opens the season at Northwestern on a Friday night. Listed as a 4-point underdog, the Spartans have won the past two against the Wildcats, including last season’s surprising upset. A road win to start the year would go a long way to get to six wins and bowl eligibility.
  • Sept. 25 vs. Nebraska: MSU’s first home Big Ten game is against the Cornhuskers, who have been a fledgling program under Scott Frost. Oddsmakers have MSU as a 4-point underdog at home here. Defending the home turf will be crucial to get to six wins. Nebraska isn’t a team you can trust as a road favorite.
  • Oct. 9 at Rutgers: Odds aren’t available for this game, but Rutgers is a team getting comparable odds as Michigan State in the Big Ten race this season. The Knights won a shootout with the Spartans last year to snap a six-game losing streak. To overachieve, MSU has to find some road wins.
  • Oct. 30 vs. Michigan: The Wolverines have a lot of questions entering the season as well. MSU made a statement last year with the win in Ann Arbor. Tucker can really secure his spot with the fanbase with another win over Jim Harbaugh and U-M. Michigan State stands a 6.5-point underdog right now, but the Spartans love the upset card. Especially in this rivalry.
  • Nov. 13 vs. Maryland: One of the few games to see MSU favored (-2.5). The Spartans are known for upsets, but also for letdowns. They play to the level of their competition many times. MSU has to handle its business as a favorite if it wants to get to six wins. This late in the season, MSU should be a much stronger team than it will to open the year. If the Spartans are stumbling in November, it’s a really bad sign.
Photo by Michael Conroy/AP
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Drew Ellis

Drew Ellis has lived in Michigan his whole life, and has been writing professionally for the last 21 years. Ellis has covered anything from youth baseball in mid-Michigan, a top-25 college football program, and pro sports in the Detroit area. Always keeping busy, Ellis also has over 10 years of experience in covering sports betting, handling all major sports.

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