By Sunday afternoon, Michigan State will know in which bowl game it is playing.
Once there, it will be up to the Spartans to make the most of it.
Coming off a season with seven wins might be enough for some programs to simply enjoy an extra few days of fun — preferably somewhere warm — and celebrate. For a team like Michigan State, though, that had championship aspirations, it offers an opportunity to begin the work of getting back on track headed into 2019.
The Spartans, once again, should have the benefit of returning the bulk of its starters. They also got plenty of experience for their backups as injuries decimated the offense all season.
How that translates into next season will play out on the field, but the work begins now. Here’s a look at some of the keys for Michigan State headed into its bowl game.
No offense ...
It’s not exactly a hot take to say the poor performance of the offense was the biggest reason Michigan State didn’t remain in the Big Ten East hunt past the midway point of the conference season. The injuries were significant as Michigan State had just one player — right tackle Jordan Reid — start all 12 games at the same position and just one more to start 12 — junior Tyler Higby, who had starts at center, left tackle and left guard.
But even losing the likes of Felton Davis, Cody White, Darrell Stewart Jr., LJ Scott and Brian Lewerke for varying lengths was not enough to explain why the Spartans were 13th in the conference in scoring. Plenty of the heat has been on the coaching staff — namely co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner — and it should. However, there just as many mistakes on the field, from drops, to missed cuts to penalties that were just as critical.
Head coach Mark Dantonio never has been one to make sweeping changes on his staff, so that likely won’t happen here. Short of that, bowl preparation will be just the start of the offense’s quest to become more cohesive and far more productive. It won’t happen in just the next few weeks, but as bowl prep begins, there should at least be signs that is the No. 1 priority.
Give 'em health
No team in the Big Ten dealt with the injuries Michigan State did this season and getting some time off before bowl practice at least gives the Spartans a chance to start mending. It won’t happen for everybody, namely Davis, who ruptured his Achilles and will begin rehab to get ready for next spring’s NFL Draft. For everyone else, the healing begins now.
Will it dramatically change the way the Spartans play in whatever bowl game they’re in? Maybe not, but it will at least allow them to start feeling like the team they believed they were heading into the season. It was tough to do when 11 of 22 returning starters lost time due to injuries and there’s not a single team out there that feels bad for the Spartans. And credit them for not using it as an excuse. There are, after all, no guarantees. But if Michigan State plays well and is relatively healthy, it’s a positive sign heading into the offseason.
A fresh look
What’s a bowl game for if not for a little fun? That doesn’t mean just off the field, but on it as well. It’s a good time for teams to start experimenting with players, seeing who might fit better in another position. It’s something the Spartans have done regularly, and it likely will continue, especially for players further down the depth chart.
And with new redshirt rules, we could see plenty of true freshmen who have yet to play four games. There have been small doses with the likes of RB Elijah Collins and DB Davion Williams. But expect even more to see some time, such as CB Kalon Gervin or DT Jacob Slade. Also, keep an eye on a handful of freshmen who traveled late in the season but didn’t play, like LB Edward Warriner, DT Dashaun Mallory, CB Chris Jackson and LB Jeslord Boateng.
Feeling the draft
It hasn’t happened in a few years, but the Spartans will be wondering if this is the last game prep for at least a couple of players that will still have eligibility remaining after the season. The two most likely to head out early for the NFL Draft are CB Justin Layne and DT Raequan Williams. Neither had talked much about it, but each has started to move up mock drafts and rankings. There’s no doubt it will come up, but whether either player announces anything before the bowl game is unlikely.
It’s also worth paying attention to RB LJ Scott. He’s played four games and has indicated he intends to return for a fifth season. But if draft rankings change, that plan could, too. There are no signs it has, but it’s at least worth watching.
The objective of each game is to win, and ultimately, that’s the No. 1 priority for Michigan State. It wasn’t the season the Spartans hope for, but there’s no doubt that eight wins looks and feels a lot better than seven. It doesn’t mean anything other than maybe some psychological momentum, but the Spartans will take it.
It’s not too much of a stretch to compare this season to 2012. In that year, Michigan State had an offense that struggled with questions at quarterback while the defense was outstanding. That turned into the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl season of 2013. It’s hard to predict that same turnaround, but with what will likely be one of the best defenses in the nation coming back, even moderate improvement from the offense could lead to something special.