Photo Credit: Matthew Mitchell / MSU Athletic Communications

The Comeback’s college football Top 50 continues with a look at a team in need of a bounceback season after a tumultuous offseason: Michigan State.

Michigan State is a program in turmoil right now. Between last season’s struggles and player dismissals, it’s hard to see many positives for this program. Its ranking in our Top 50 is solely a testament to Mark Dantonio. The coach built this program into a perennial top team.

After Top 15 finishes in five out of six years (from 2010 to 2015), it seems surreal to imagine that it’s hard to pick out eight wins for this team in 2017. That’s how awful last year was. Faith in Dantonio will earn this team a bit of respect if it can win a few games to start the season, but it will take a near-miracle to earn any real respect.

No. 43 Michigan State Spartans

2016 Record: 3-9, 1-8 Big Ten

Coach: Mark Dantonio (90-42 at Michigan State, 108-59 overall)

Last year in a nutshell

In a nutshell? 2016 was not a good year for the Spartans. The season started a bit iffy with lackluster wins over Furman and Notre Dame. After that, things went downhill fast. Losses to Wisconsin and Indiana sparked a seven-game losing streak. This team clearly had talent and played both Michigan and Ohio State far closer than anyone dreamed, but it felt like this team just lost heart after the Indiana loss.

Michigan State probably should have beaten Indiana and definitely should have beaten Illinois. 2016 should have been bad, but it shouldn’t have been disastrous. The fact that Dantonio couldn’t get his team to perform to its utmost might be the most concerning fact of the entire 2016 debacle for the Spartans.

Recruiting Roundup

247 Sports Composite Ranking: 34th
This shouldn’t be concerning at all. Dantonio does his best work at finding the kids that work best with him, even if they’re not highly-touted. He reached the Playoff with classes not averaging much higher than this. For most top teams, a recruiting class this low would be scary. But it isn’t for Michigan State.

3 Key Stats

— Michigan State’s returning starters: Then again, after last season maybe that’s not a bad thing. But for a program that builds so much on each previous year and does best with experienced upperclassmen, that’s a lot of inexperienced new players coming in. 2018 might look good, but the Spartans will need a lot of new names to step up, and fast.

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

— Number of players dismissed this offseason: 2016 was Michigan State’s best class since Dantonio arrived. So far, four of the players from that class were dismissed this offseason. That’s a lot of talent for an already-inexperienced roster to lose. It certainly makes rebuilding the team this season that much harder.

— Number of back-to-back unranked seasons for Michigan State under Dantonio: That’s right. Since Dantonio arrived in 2007, the Spartans have ended the year ranked at least once in every two years. Right now, we might think that it will require a miracle for this stat to stay alive, but this is very much a main part of why Dantonio has earned his benefit of the doubt.

Make or Break Games of 2017

Sept. 30 vs Iowa

Record in last 5 meetings: 3-2

Last year’s result: Did not play. Michigan State beat Iowa 16-13 in the Big Ten Championship Game in 2015.

This should be the first questionable game of Michigan State’s season. It will certainly be the first one at home. The Spartans should take care of Bowling Green and Western Michigan. Notre Dame is a question mark themselves this year, so we’ll leave that out of it. But this Week 4 matchup will tell us a lot about what to expect from Michigan State in 2017. Will this team believe that it can win close ones and come through when it gets tough? Or will it collapse like it did last year? Additionally, if Michigan State wins this game, bowl eligibility should be very much within reach. If not, it will be very iffy.

If the Spartans can gel and play like we expect from Dantonio teams, an upset over either Ohio State, Penn State, or Michigan would be huge. But all three of those seem well out of reach this year.

Three Key Players

LJ Scott, RB — Dantonio is infuriatingly consistent in his approach to his offense. He runs on running downs and throws on passing downs. It’s worked for him, but you sometimes have to question his stubbornness when it’s clearly not working (like against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl two years ago). Still, this means that a lot will be riding on junior tailback LJ Scott. First and second downs will be on his shoulder.

The offensive line — Dantonio’s most successful seasons have come when he has had a veteran offensive line playing up to its ability. Which makes sense, given his penchant for a lack of innovation on offense. If your line can make it work even when your play-calling is predictable, then you’ll have success. If the line can’t, then it will be a long season on offense. The line will not at all be experienced this year, so it will take a lot of work in the fall to make an offense that Dantonio can run with success.

Someone on defense — I honestly don’t know who to pick to be the anchor of this defense in 2017, but it’s got to be someone. Demetrius Cooper has the most experience of those returning, but his experience last year wasn’t really always positive. The Spartan defense, once a veritable “no fly zone,” was basically an open runway last year as just about every opponent earned huge chinks through the air. Someone, anyone, has to step up to start to change that, or this inexperienced offense won’t stand a chance. And based on the total lack of experience on defense, it doesn’t look so likely.

Bold predictions

I’m torn between my faith in Dantonio and my honest total lack of faith in this team right now. If I’m going with the former, I’d predict a 9-4 season with a win in a good bowl game. If I’m going with the latter, I’d say that this team will win its first and last two games, while losing all eight in between. I don’t see much of a middle ground. Either Dantonio pulls through and this team wins nine games (and keeps the aforementioned ranked season streak alive), or this team only wins four. Those are the options.

Follow the rest of The Comeback’s Top 50 College Football Countdown leading up to the regular season.

About Yesh Ginsburg

Yesh has been a fan and student of college football since before he can remember. He spent years mastering the intricacies of the BCS and now keeps an eye on the national picture as teams jockey for College Football Playoff positioning.