Before this season began, the media picked Michigan State to finish third in the Big Ten behind Ohio State and Penn State. The Spartans were ranked in the top 25 to start the season and appeared to be on track after an easy 44-3 win over Montana State. They have now lost two straight games to fall to 1-2 and the question on my mind is why everyone is so surprised. Sure, losing to Central Michigan at home is something most analysts considered out of the question for the Spartans, but the Chippewas are one of the better teams in the Mid-American Conference and it was only a matter of time before they pulled off an upset over a Big Ten team.
Michigan State simply isn't that good. Last season was considered a breakout year for the team as it finished 9-4, but let's look at the quality of those nine victories. The Spartans' only win over a ranked opponent came at Northwestern, giving them a 1-3 record against the top 25. Three of their four losses on the year were by double digits, including a 45-7 drubbing in Spartan Stadium by Ohio State. They probably should have lost to Wisconsin at home. Their season featured triumphs over three-win Michigan, three-win Indiana, four-win Purdue, a .500 Notre Dame team and two non-BCS opponents. Not a whole lot there to justify Michigan State's top-25 ranking at the end of the season.
Even more perplexing is how a team that was decent at best in 2008 was projected to take the proverbial next step - players and coaches were talking Rose Bowl this year - after losing its two most productive offensive players. Doak Walker Award Finalist Javon Ringer accounted for 97 percent of Michigan State's rushing yards last season. He also led the nation with 390 carries. Did anyone think replacing him might be a challenge? Similarly, quarterback Brian Hoyer made all but 46 pass attempts a year ago. He is no longer on the roster as well.
Defensively, while the Spartans return preseason Big Ten defensive player of the year Greg Jones at middle linebacker, the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions proved Michigan State can be scored on by hanging a combined 99 points on their defense. After its performances against Central Michigan and Notre Dame the last two weeks, is there any reason to fear that unit now?
This is not to say Saturday's game will be a cakewalk for the Badgers. It is a familiar refrain this time of year at Wisconsin, after beating three typically soft non-conference opponents, but we really don't know how good this team is yet. Keep an eye on the quarterbacks, as first-year starters Kirk Cousins of Michigan State and Scott Tolzien of the Badgers are the surprising early leaders in passing efficiency in the conference. My guess is whichever quarterback makes the fewest mistakes is likely to win this one.
PREDICTION: Wisconsin 20, Michigan State 17