But it's over. We're in this thing. With one game under the belt, we now know that the quarterback situation is under control, the defense will be watched through clenched fingers, and, as usual, the running game will be filthy.
But now, a true test is on the horizon, with a legitimate top-5 opponent in Michigan State. How will Adams handle the big stage? Can the secondary shore-up the issues that arose against Eastern Washington? These questions will be answered Saturday night; but to get a better perspective of the Spartans, we've connected with Austin Smith from The Only Colors, the Michigan State affiliate at SB Nations, for a fun Q & A.
What is the perception of Oregon? How is the game being viewed? What are realistic expectations for MSU? We asked Austin, and trust us, it's worth the read.
1. With tOSU being the prohibitive favorite, and Michigan once again being relevant (despite having yet played a game), where does the Oregon game rank with fans? Being non-conference, and early, a loss does not knock either team out of the playoff hunt, but it's still vital. How much does the revenge factor matter?
I think this game ranks as the second-most important of the year. Revenge plays a major part since MSU was really only a play or two away from winning last year's tilt. The Spartans have legitimate playoff aspirations and, while I won't call it a must win -- I think an 11-1 Big Ten Champ MSU probably still makes it in -- it is damn close. The Michigan game slots in third for me but has some extra juice this year with the Khaki bandit taking center stage in Ann Arbor. But, even if all goes well for the wolves, it will be a year or two (or three) before these teams are evenly matched. When that happens, Michigan will be the biggest game, no question. This season, however, Ohio State is the lone game that tops Oregon. If MSU can beat the Ducks and take care of the rest of their schedule (which they should) we could be looking at a 1 vs 2 matchup in Columbus onNovember 21st. The potential for the biggest game in school history is the only thing keeping Oregon from being the most important game of MSU's season.
2. Last season, despite the score, it was a very even game for the better part of 3 1/2 quarters; What is the feeling, getting Oregon at home, from the team? Is there a confidence, knowing that they went toe-to-toe on the road last year?
I don't think any fan in their right mind thought MSU had a great chance of winning in Eugene last year. We were all riding the Rose Bowl confidence wave, but heading into Autzen and facing Mariota was a tall task, to say the least. Honestly, we missed Max Bullough more than anyone could have anticipated. Not to take anything from Taiwan Jones, but asking him to diagnose the Ducks offense in his second game as MIKE linebacker was like asking me to walk a tightrope across the Detroit River (note: I am not a gymnast, nor would I willingly enter the Detroit River without being chased by an angry fire-wielding mob). Despite that, MSU was right in that one. Had Connor Cook been able to make the pitch to Trevon Pendleton on 3rd down early in the second half (the same play Mariota was able to make) it's a completely different ballgame. That's a long-winded way of saying yes -- I think there is an elevated level of confidence heading into the rematch. Mark Dantonio's team feels like they should have won last year and games like this (along with OSU) are the reason Cook and Shilique Calhoun decided to come back for their senior seasons.
3. What does losing Pat Narduzzi mean? Even from across the country, he was known as one of the top defensive minds in the game.
Look, Narduzzi is an incredible coach who essentially built and masterminded the scheme MSU has employed so effectively since 2007. To act like losing him will have no effect at all would be foolish. However, and I may be crazy, I don't think it's quite as big a deal as most are making it out to be. MSU caught a massive break when Narduzzi took almost none of his defensive staff along with him to Pitt. It's exceedingly rare that a coordinator of his stature leaves town and the team can still claim (for the most part) total internal stability. Recently promoted co-defensive coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressell coached under Narduzzi for over a decade, dating back to when he was defensive coordinator for Dantonio at Cincinnati. MSU also sports co-coordinators on offense, in Dave Warner and Jim "The Walrus" Bollman, so there is precedent for this having success with this set-up. The test will be on game day, when Barnett and Tressell have to adjust to their new responsibilities. I personally don't put much into the Western Michigan performance, as MSU was playing pretty vanilla on both sides of the ball and WMU has a very good passing offense, but there is certainly an adjustment to be made. Losing Narduzzi will be a change, but it's about as smooth a transition as you could hope for.
4. After years in the shadows, Michigan State has been steadily in the mix for the better part of five years now. How are fans viewing the run of success? Is more of "We're just happy to be on the ride" or is there a feeling that they belong?
This is an interesting one. Full disclosure: I grew up a die-hard fan and attended MSU. I was one of the very few Spartan faithful in my age bracket (we poor souls who grew up enduring the Bobby Williams and John L. Smith eras) and being that my formative years coincided with one of the worst stretches of Spartan football ever, this program is at a point that I, in all honesty, was not sure I would ever see. Sure, we had nice seasons and even had a couple pros -- yes, I wept with joy when Charles Rogers was drafted by my Detroit Lions second overall; pity me -- but there was never any measure of consistency within the program. That all changed when Athletic Director Mark Hollis and Dantonio came aboard. Since then it has been a steady rise.
Today, the feeling is entirely towards the "we belong" end of the spectrum. A big part of that comes from how well Dantonio has recruited. Anyone who follows MSU knows the tired stories of two-stars like Le'Veon Bell, Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes turning into top NFL draft picks. In truth, MSU has had fairly good recruiting classes the entire Dantonio era, but those stories are the celebrated ones -- for good reason. Now, MSU's brand is established and they are reeling in top-caliber talent and keeping it away from the Ohio State's of the world (although you'd never know it after Monday night). That recruiting success gives fans confidence that this is just the beginning, not the end like some people in blue would have you believe.
So, for me personally, it's a mix of the two. The memories of those dog days will always make me grateful to be "on the ride" at all, but after several years of sustained success at the highest level, there is no doubt we belong.
5. It's always interesting to hear perspective from someone removed from the situation: how is Oregon -- the entirety of the program -- viewed? They may be the most polarizing program in the country. They're relatively new to winning, and do it with flash-and-swagger that is different from most. Are they respected? Envied? Hated?
If there is animosity towards the Oregon program, I can tell you it doesn't exist in the Midwest. However, I can say there is a healthy amount of both respect and envy when it comes to the Ducks.
I think Oregon is a college football "Blue Blood". For as long as I can remember, it's been a great program that has consistently won a lot of games without any major scandal. They are perennially mentioned among the nation's elite and have accomplished everything, individually and as a team, short of bringing home the national title. (Side note: Remember how I cried when the Lions drafted Charles Rogers? I did the same thing when they drafted Joey Harrington. I still have his jersey. My life has been very difficult.)
I'm also extremely jealous of Oregon and its fans, for two reasons. The first is Nike. If I was choosing a school, I'd be lying if I said Oregon wouldn't make my short list based on gear alone. It is a very real selling point. The other reason is the offense. The read-option is an incredibly fun offense to watch and when you have athletes falling out of your pockets the way the Ducks do, it is borderline hypnotizing. An insanely entertaining offense run by lightning-fast athletes in sick gear? Where do I sign up?
6. Michigan State is viewed, almost unanimously, as a top-5 team this season. Is that realistic? Connor Cook may be the most underrated player in the country, and the defense, despite losses, looks solid. What is the ceiling?
There are question marks on this team, there's no denying that. The cornerbacks are relatively untested, none of the top three running backs have any real experience and the wideout depth is green, as well. There's a new MIKE linebacker and one of the team's best defensive weapons, Ed Davis, is out for the year.
Despite all of that, this is probably Mark Dantonio's best team. The depth he has built makes the loss of Davis palatable and the play of redshirt freshman corner Vayante Copeland against WMU's talented veteran wideouts should quell some fears about the revamped secondary. The new MIKE is a Bullough (read: football cyborg) and, by all accounts, is already well ahead of where Taiwan Jones was at any point last year. At wideout, Aaron Burbridge looks ready to (finally) break out, Macgarrett Kings has loads of experience and behind them there are several talented (albeit inexperienced) pass catchers. After one game, it's difficult to say any of these questions are answered concretely, but there were enough plays to instill confidence in the new groups.
What sets this edition of the Spartans apart is the play on both lines and under center. Behind Calhoun, Malik McDowell and Lawrence Thomas, MSU is going to have one of the best defensive lines in the country. On the other side of the ball, an offensive line that gave up only 11 sacks a year ago, and features at least two future pros in Jack Allen and Jack Conklin, should be able to open holes for whoever is carrying the ball. Both of these groups were as advertised in week one and will provide an edge for MSU throughout the season.
On top of all that is Connor Cook, who is probably going down as the best QB in program history. Cook is as good as anyone is the country and despite doing things like throwing what looked to be back-breaking pick-six's in both the Rose and Cotton Bowl, he never lets anything get him rattled. Yes, Cook has to be more accurate and, yes, this team has to face Oregon and go on the road to Ohio State (not to mention road dates with Nebraska and Michigan) but if there is a guy I want leading my team into battle, it's Cook.
At the end of the day, the ceiling for this team is a national championship. They are elite in the three most crucial areas and pretty damn talented everywhere else. The leadership is strong and the coaching is even stronger. I'm not sure how many MSU fans will say it aloud today -- if MSU can win on Saturday, it'll be a lot more -- but this team shouldn't be shy about setting its sights on the ultimate prize.
OK -- so, who wins?This one is going to be a shootout and will probably come down to who wins the turnover battle. I think the answer (this year) is MSU. A late RJ Williamson Pick-Six seals the revenge win for Sparty. MSU 45-38.