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Mailbag: Why Michigan State isn’t getting the respect it deserves

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Jairaj/Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

I’d already planned to begin this week on a serious note, and then, coincidentally, someone sent a question that serves as the perfect lead in.

Stewart: What is your favorite place to cover a game and why? Is it the atmosphere, food, tailgating, surroundings, etc.?

— David Parry, Belton, Texas

There are so many amazing environments in college football, but I’ve been consistent for many years in saying my favorite is LSU’s – for all the reasons you said. Which is why it’s been so sad to see the devastation in Baton Rouge and surrounding areas from the recent floods. It’s now considered the country’s worst natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy in 2012. As ESPN’s Kaylee Hartung documented, LSU athletes are directly involved in recovery efforts.

So in honor of all those great LSU fans’ hospitality over the years, I’ve organized a little fundraising drive for Baton Rouge flood victims. I hope Mailbag readers will join me in contributing to the Louisiana Flood Relief Fund and help shatter my modest goal of $2,016 by the time the Tigers kick off their 2016 season against Wisconsin next Saturday.

On to the Mailbag.

If you were to base your expectations for the upcoming college football season only on reading what is available online, watching TV and listening to sports radio, would you ever guess that Ohio State and Michigan are actually chasing Michigan State for big-dog status in the Big Ten, and not the other way around? I mean, like in a million years?

— Matt, San Francisco

No, and I’m as guilty as anyone of contributing to that perception. I’ve devoted a whole lot of words and podcast minutes this offseason to the Buckeyes and Wolverines but very few to the program that’s won two of the past three conference titles and at least 11 games five of the past six years. Part of that is to be expected. Ohio State and Michigan are always going to get more coverage, good or bad, than Michigan State, due to the level of interest in both. And Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh are far more fascinating personalities, good and bad, than the purposefully bland but effective Mark Dantonio.

I assume Michigan State fans would be willing to forgive all that if I were to at least give the Spartans their due for on-field performance. But alas, there I was with my Big Ten preview last week going against my better judgment and picking Dantonio to go 8-4 and finish tied for third in the East with Penn State. Heck, a week later I’m a little perplexed myself why I’d have as much faith in James Franklin as I would Dantonio.

Mark Dantonio (Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports)

But frankly, I have my concerns. For one thing, the last time Dantonio went through a quarterback change, in 2012 after Kirk Cousins left, things did not go smoothly. Maybe fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor makes this one easier. More pressingly, the Spartans are attempting to replace two All-American offensive linemen, tackle Jack Conklin and center Jack Allen, and one of the expected replacements, tackle Dennis Finley, has not fully recovered from breaking his leg last season. And lastly, Aaron Burbridge was the only receiver last year that truly possessed game-changing ability; now he’s gone.

In questioning Michigan State’s ability to reload at those positions, I fully admit I’m not giving it nearly the benefit of the doubt I probably should. But I’m also not blindly picking Ohio State and Michigan to finish above the Spartans. I know well what they’re both brining back, and I just like their potential a little better.

How worried should ‘Noles fans be about having a redshirt freshman starting quarterback (Deondre Francois) what with last year’s starter (Sean Maguire) injured and another one suspended (true freshman Malik Henry). I trust Jimbo with QBs, but this could get interesting.

— Adam Gradyan, Biloxi, MS

Just in terms of the diminishing number of bodies, I’d certainly be nervous about anyone even breathing wrong around Francois until at least Maguire returns from his foot injury sometime in the first month of the season. FSU does still have redshirt sophomore J.J. Cosentino, who played in the Peach Bowl against Houston, but Francois moved ahead of him for a reason. So that would not be ideal.

But I had little hesitation picking the ‘Noles to win the ACC and reach the playoff even with an unknown commodity under center. While you certainly need some reasonable level of production from your quarterback, FSU should be able to beat most people (including season-opening foe Ole Miss) primarily by running the ball, stuffing the run and suffocating opposing quarterbacks. Jameis Winston did not have a running back nearly as lethal as Dalvin Cook in the backfield when he started as a redshirt freshman. And Cook will be running behind a deep, experienced O-line.

Dalvin Cook (Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports)

Meanwhile, I fully expect FSU to field one of the nation’s top defensive lines, led by DeMarcus Walker and Josh Sweat, and Derwin James is likely to cement himself as possibly the top safety in the country.

All of which is to say that Francois does not need to go out and throw for 4,000 yards, and while his playmaking ability as a runner is enticing, Fisher won’t likely want his quarterback getting hit any more than necessary. If he comes out and throws a whole bunch of interceptions on Labor Day night in Orlando then yes, absolutely, ‘Noles fans should worry.

In your Tuesday piece on Notre Dame’s slim playoff chances, you gave a projection of eight or nine wins, largely because of new faces on defense and at receiver, and, most importantly, because of the effects of not settling on one QB. Realizing that nothing can be done about a lack of experience at this point, how would your win-loss projection change if Notre Dame had one solidified starter?

— John, Annandale, New Jersey

It’s funny you say that. I’ve long contended that if only I had the time and resources to visit every school in the country during the spring or preseason camp, my season previews would be a lot more informed.

I initially expected to pick the Irish to go 10-2, and, in fact, if you were to go back and check my predicted records for their Power 5 opponents in my conference previews last week, you’d probably deduce that. But most of those came out before my visit to Notre Dame last week, which soured me a bit on their prospects. (I did enjoy my time in South Bend, though. Have a meal at The Mark Dine and Tap across the street from campus if you’re ever there. And in another positive development, they opened a Jimmy John’s since my last visit in 2014.)

It’s not so much the uncertainty at quarterback as the bad vibes I picked up from Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer at Brian Kelly’s decision. Now, the news was still raw at that point and maybe they’re over it already. And maybe Kelly settles on one after the Texas game and that storyline becomes moot. But I could see where the whole thing becomes a season-long distraction. But also, that was just one piece of the evaluation. I attended practice, and the overall athleticism out there did not reflect a top-four team. In fact, I was more impressed by Louisville, which I saw two days before that. (You’ll see that story soon.)

DeShone Kizer (Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports)

So if he’d named a starting quarterback, maybe I say nine wins, not eight, but my larger hunch that the Irish will take a step back in 2016 would not be much different.

Hi Stewart: If I were only able to watch one game on the opening weekend of the college football season, what one game would you say is the can’t-miss game of the weekend?

— Garret, Sacramento, CA

That depends on what aspect of the sport you find most interesting.

For playoff implications, it’s Oklahoma-Houston. A Cougars win would introduce a whole new element to this season’s playoff debate – can/should an undefeated Group of 5 team get in? And if Oklahoma wins, and especially if it wins handily against a team that won 13 games last season, the Sooners will solidify themselves on this season’s short list.

For pure intrigue’s sake, I increasingly find myself most eager to see the Sunday night Notre Dame-Texas game. You might, too, if you’re curious to see whether Charlie Strong’s offensive makeover will pay dividends and launch freshman Shane Buechele into stardom, and how exactly Brian Kelly’s two-quarterback rotation will work. It should be much more interesting than last year’s bloodbath in South Bend.

For novelty’s sake, it could be awfully cool to watch LSU and Wisconsin square off at Lambeau. Especially since Leonard Fournette will be playing in NFL stadiums for years to come.

And if you mostly just care about tradition and uniforms, then you’ve got to go with USC-Alabama, at least for as long as it remains competitive.

All of which may seem like a cop-out, since you asked about one can’t-miss game. But this is such a historic and incredible opening weekend that I mostly just feel bad for you if you can only watch one game.

Out of all your conference predictions, which conference (or division) felt the most wide-open to you?

— Brian Stewart, Buford Ga.

The Pac-12 was definitely the most wide-open. I picked Stanford, despite reservations about the Cardinal’s as-yet-undecided quarterback – their first new starter in four years – due mostly to the return of Christian McCaffrey and what should be a much-improved defense. But I could have just as easily justified taking Washington, Washington State, UCLA or even Utah. I even entertained one scenario where they all go 9-3. Stanford, having done it three of the past four years, gets the benefit of the doubt, but don’t be surprised if it’s an up-and-comer.

Going one step beyond that, the most wide-open division in the country is the Pac-12 South – because everybody’s flawed. UCLA has the most talent, first and foremost QB Josh Rosen, but is undertaking a fairly radical shift in offensive philosophy in trying to become a physical pro-style team. USC has its usual star power but an absolutely brutal schedule. Utah has the best combination of offensive and defensive lines but largely unproven skill talent. Arizona could be really good on offense and really bad on defense.

Josh Rosen (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

And I picked Arizona State to finish last, below even Colorado, but fully acknowledge that Todd Graham could well rise up and win 10 games just when you least suspect it. If so, that’s five of six teams that could theoretically win the division and could theoretically finish fifth or sixth. That’s pretty open.

Your mailbag has been VERY boring lately, let’s change that this week. How is it possible that Nick Saban, in his entire coaching career at Michigan State, LSU, and Alabama, has not had a top-level first-round type QB? He has signed top level QBs, but none have panned out. Is it a development issue? It looks like this will be another year where Alabama has the most talent, just not at the QB position.

— John, Summit, NJ

Boring, huh? I’ll try to start spicing things up a little bit. I’m thinking, swimsuit issue.

It’s an interesting question, but the premise may be flawed. While Saban’s all-time quarterback roster is not particularly glamorous, he did sign and coach an eventual No. 1 pick, JaMarcus Russell, at LSU, and AJ McCarron was a national pass efficiency leader and Heisman runner-up at Alabama. (He went in the fifth round.) Fellow Saban QBs Josh Booty, Rohan Davey and Matt Mauck (at LSU) and Greg McElroy at Alabama all played in the NFL, albeit briefly. He also coached 1996 second-round pick Tony Banks for one year at Michigan State.

Nick Saban (Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports)

So the question becomes, is that portfolio truly meager for a coach of Saban’s stature and longevity? It certainly doesn’t stack up with those of Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, who had three straight QBs — Christian Ponder, EJ Manuel and Jameis Winston — taken in the first round, or Urban Meyer with first-rounders Alex Smith (Utah) and Tim Tebow (Florida). Arguably Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio has a more impressive roster, too, with NFL starters Kirk Cousins and Brian Hoyer and recent draftee Connor Cook.

But that’s about it. For all of Bob Stoops’ offensive success at Oklahoma, to this point Sam Bradford remains his only first-rounder. Nebraska’s Mike Riley coached numerous NFL QBs at Oregon State but none went in the first three rounds. Kirk Ferentz has had one QB (Ricky Stanzi) drafted in 17 years at Iowa. And so on and so forth.

So while it’s true that Saban doesn’t pump out high-level quarterbacks at nearly the same rate he does running backs and defensive linemen, not many coaches do.

What is the timeline for Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech? I’m sure Tech will give him time like they did Beamer, but how long until they can become contenders again?

— Paul Madsen, Akron, Oh

Well, if you ask their fans, they already are. At least that’s the message I got from the ones on Twitter who took me to task for picking the Hokies to go 5-7 and finish sixth in their division – the most backlash of any prediction I made in any conference. I will admit, I could have given a much better one-sentence explanation than “[Fuente] does not inherit much cause for excitement on either side of the ball.” As those fans pointed out, Tech returns both a 1,000-yard rusher (sophomore Travon McMillian) and receiver (Isaiah Ford) and all-conference tight end (Bucky Hodges).

That said, those same players were part of an offense that ranked 92nd nationally in yards per play (5.3) last year, a major reason the Hokies went 7-6. Fuente engineered an explosive offense at Memphis, but there’s no Paxton Lynch in Tech’s quarterback room, at least not yet. So picking them to finish one game worse than the year before hardly seemed unreasonable to me.

We can safely assume Fuente won’t be given nearly as long a leash as Beamer did back in 1992 when he went 2-8-1 in his sixth season and survived. And that’s in large part because Beamer raised the bar for that program exponentially. But AD Whit Babcock knows exactly what Fuente inherited. He’ll get plenty of time, and frankly he might not need it. He turned Memphis around in rapid fashion. One thing to keep an eye on, though, will be the inevitable comparisons to whatever progress rival Virginia makes under its new coach Bronco Mendenhall.

Here’s a fun fact for you. There have only been five SEC teams to go to a bowl game in each of the last six years – Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M and Mississippi State. Is there a coach at a Power 5 school that has done more to raise the level of a program than Dan Mullen at Mississippi State?

— Philip Allison – Starkville, Miss.

That is indeed a fun fact. Here’s another one I recently learned only after picking Mississippi State to finish seventh in the West yet again: Mullen has never finished lower than fifth and has gone .500 or better in conference play four of the past six seasons. To be clear, there are other coaches who have done more to raise the level of their programs – TCU’s Gary Patterson, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, Duke’s David Cutcliffe and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, to name a few – but Mullen has consistently exceeded expectations in a division where literally all of the other teams have more resources and a higher recruiting profile.

Dan Mullen (Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports)

And so I’m fully prepared to be wrong again about Mississippi State, though Mullen, who’s gone 19-7 the past two seasons, faces a particularly daunting challenge this fall. Dak Prescott’s preseason tear for the Dallas Cowboys has only reinforced what a transcendent player he was in Starkville, where he twice garnered first-team All-SEC honors. The guy finished with the third-most total yards (11,897) and fourth-most career touchdowns (114) in SEC history. Mullen is a great quarterbacks coach, but that’s a tall order replacing the greatest player in school history. I’ll be extremely impressed if he does it without taking a step back.

I can’t wait. Can you?

— Crawford Clay, Stafford, Va

Agreed, Friday can’t get here soon enough. I’ve been waiting too long for the new Britney Spears album.

… Oh football season! No question, bring on Cal-Hawaii.