Michigan State’s risky Mel Tucker hire

Photo via Al Goldis

The 2015 Michigan State Spartans were marching proudly, as they collected a College Football Playoff Cotton Bowl bid due in large part to a Big Ten Conference title and a 12-2 record.

The Spartan glamour would quickly falter to gloom, however, as their reliable defensive phalanx would implode against the Alabama Crimson Tide, 38-0.  

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio was unable to rebound the Spartans’ from the loss, as in the following three seasons, the team combined to go 27-24 with two small-tier bowl victories. While the stretch was a retooling and rebuilding period, this could not be a full-blown excuse. As a Power Five program in a competitive conference with a head coaching legend, they were expected to compete for titles year in and year out regardless of an NFL Draft exodus. The period eventually caught up for Dantonio, as the 12-year Spartans’ head coach retired in February after the conclusion of the college football season. 

The retirement gave the program an opportunity to bring in a younger, more invigorated mind. Perhaps someone that would be able to bring in a high-octane offense that was lacking when compared to other mainstays and up-and-coming teams in the Big Ten, including that of Ohio State, Wisconsin and Minnesota, among others. 

The solution to the coaching void came in the form of 48-year-old Mel Tucker. Tucker, a coach with NFL and blue-chip college coordinator experience (including time with defensive-minded teams in Ohio State, Georgia and Alabama) who just recently hailed from the University of Colorado Boulder, where he went 5-7 in his only year there. The hire, as it would seem on the surface, would be a youthful injection that would seemingly put Michigan State at an elite level once more. 

The upside of the hire looks enticing, but it is not a revolutionary one. Not one that jumps off the page with a new offensive concept that can put the program a leg up and back in the discussion for Big Ten Conference titles. After all, offense is the name of the game, and Michigan State, to put it lightly, has not been known as an offensive juggernaut (their 29.8 points per game during their 2015 Cotton Bowl season ranked 60th) recently. 

Instead, the hire looks too much like a lateral move best-case scenario and a complete bust worst-case. 

When looking at Tucker’s 2019 coaching season with Colorado when compared to Dantonio’s with Michigan State, similarities become readily apparent. On offense, Tucker’s Buffaloes averaged 388.5 yards per game (83rd in the FBS) and 23.5 points per game (100th), whereas Dantonio’s Spartans averaged 371.9 yards (95th) and 22.4 points per game (105th). When breaking down the offense into rushing and passing, the similarities continue. In the passing category, the Buffaloes averaged 238.2 yards per game (61st) while the Spartans averaged 244.8 (55th). When looking at the rushing side of the ball, the biggest difference can be noticed, as the Buffaloes averaged 150.3 yards per game (t-79th), while Michigan State averaged 127.2 (113th). 

With Tucker and Dantonio both coming from a defensive-oriented background, it is no wonder that defense would be what they would primarily attempt to build their team around. When looking at the defensive comparisons, Tucker’s Buffaloes’ struggled, as they allowed 441.9 yards per game (104th). Dantonio’s squad, meanwhile, allowed 321.6 yards per game, which ranked 18th in the FBS and was ahead of other notable teams including Alabama (20th with 324.5), Oregon (22nd with 329.1) and the 2019-20 National Champions in LSU (31st with 343.5). The disparity lengthens when looking at passing and rushing yards allowed, as Michigan State’s 207.8 passing yards allowed and 113.8 rushing yards allowed both ranked inside the top 40 (37th and 16th, respectively). Colorado’s 288.3 passing yards allowed and 153.1 rushing yards allowed ranked 123rd and 61st, respectively. 

In Tucker’s defense (no pun intended), he was in his first-ever year as head coach and was instantly thrown into the fire of a Power Five Conference in the Pac-12. 

While Tucker is getting a hefty pay jump (five years and $14.8 million to six years and upwards of $30 million), he is heading into a more scorching fire pit that is the Big Ten. 

Let’s look at the statistics once more. While the Pac-12 offensively possessed the same number of teams in the top 50 in points per game as the Big Ten (six each), the Big Ten absolutely trounced the Pac-12 when looking defensively at total yards allowed. When looking at the top 50 teams in total yards allowed, the Big Ten had eight teams (Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State and Indiana) excluding Michigan State, while the Pac-12 only had three (Utah, Oregon and Washington). 

While Tucker comes from a defensive background, he is not only raw as a head coach, but unknown as an offensive-minded play designer. In his only season as Colorado’s head coach, his collective offense was weak. He now must take over a program that is part of a conference that puts more emphasis on defenses clinching deadly chokeholds on opposing offenses. While Tucker’s defensive prowess could eventually shine, the offense is too much of an unknown and could be feasted on by stingy front-sevens and lockdown defensive backs. 

While it is true it takes several years to build up a roster with recruiting unique to what the head coach envisions, will several years at the minimum be able to put Michigan State back into the Playoff hunt? Are Spartan fans willing to wait several years to maybe see a one-year head coach’s plans possibly pan out? 

The variables are too much of a mystery. While Tucker could definitely make a Spartan defensive formation reminiscent to Dantonio’s Spartan teams, the offensive outlook is that much cloudier and bleaker.

Tucker has a new contract, and the Spartans are willing to give him time to implement what is needed. Even still, when wrapping the entire package together, Tucker does not seem to be the answer to bring the Playoff luster back to the Spartan faithful. 

Published by John Crane

I am originally from Alexandria, Louisiana, but have lived in South Carolina, Texas, Arizona and now Colorado. After recently graduating from Northern Arizona University, I am now continuing to sharpen my journalistic craft through writing, radio and podcasting. My dream is to become a sports reporter or broadcaster.

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