Can Michigan State football continue their success?

Harry How

The Spartans have had a hell of a run over these last few seasons, but should Buckeye fans expect that to be sustainable? Let's look at the details.

Over the last five seasons, Michigan State has amassed an impressive 48-17 record, snagging a Big Ten Championship Game win, two Big Ten Leaders division titles, three double-digit win seasons, a Rose Bowl win, and two other bowl victories. That's not just a pretty good run for "little brother" standard; it's a tremendous run for anybody.

With Michigan State moving to Ohio State's side of the conference this season, are the Spartans poised to become a new divisional rival for the Buckeyes, becoming the new main obstacle for East division supremacy? Is this jolt of success sustainable for the Spartans, or has the would-be Michigan State dynasty already peaked?

Taking nothing away from Michigan State's accomplishments, one reason for Sparty's success might be fortuitous timing. Michigan State' run has nicely coincided with the relative decline of Michigan. The major seeds for Michigan State's run this year came from the 2010 and 2011 recruiting classes, classes that weren't far away in quality of Michigan's. The Wolverines were slogging through the tail end of the Rich Rod era at that point, so a few players who might have otherwise attended a well-oiled Michigan machine might have been persuaded to don the Green and White.

Plus, when Michigan kind of stinks, it helps to play them every year. The Spartans have won five of their last six against Michigan, with the last meeting resulting in a historical display of rushing ineptitude. Michigan hasn't scored more than 21 points against the Spartans since 2007.

Michigan hasn't been the only other potential rival to the Spartans that has struggled over the last few years. Penn State was famously clobbered by scandal and sanctions. The proverbial middle class of the league, Iowa, Purdue, Minnesota, etc have been particularly lousy, setting up easy wins to help pad wins. Since 2010, Michigan State has gone 8-2 against those three schools, and was a few unlucky bounces from winning them all.

Will that continue? Well, Iowa, Purdue and Minnesota might not get a ton better in the near future, but that's also somewhat moot since Michigan State is moving to the other side of the Big Ten, where they will play Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State. Sparty's schedule in general isn't going to be easy in the near future either. Michigan State heads to Oregon next season to kick off a home and home with the Ducks, and draws Nebraska as one of their cross divisional games. In 2015, they host Oregon and travel to Nebraska, Ohio State and Michigan. With James Franklin at the helm in State College, the Nittany Lions should be able to climb out of being merely average once their sanctions clear, making the road ahead a tough one for the Spartans.

Will this recent run of success help Michigan State close the talent gap with some of their league brethren? Here are some of the recent Big Ten recruiting rankings, from the 247Composite ranking listing. The 2014 ranking, of course, is only estimated, as of today:

Year Michigan State Ohio State Michigan Penn State Wisconsin Nebraska
2014 34 2 15 20 30 35
2013 37 2 4 30 39 22
2012 34 5 6 48 65 31
2011 34 6 26 31 40 17
2010 23 20 16 11 49 26

While the Spartans are bringing in some quality players, their class rankings have remained relatively static, while Ohio State and Michigan are widening the gap, with Penn State lurking as a potential hidden recruiting giant in the next few years under Franklin. All three of those schools are annual foes with Sparty, and if that talent gap widens, it may be hard for Michigan State to continue to win double digit games a year.

There is a compelling counter argument though. After all, while the relationship between winning and recruiting classes may exist, it isn't linear. Wisconsin went to three straight Rose Bowls (okay, like, two and a half Rose Bowls. THANKS NCAA) despite never bringing in a Top 25 recruiting class. Michigan State's coaching staff has done a great job "coaching up" many three star recruits (like Darqueze Dennard and Le'Veon Bell), and Mark Dantonio, assuming he remains healthy, isn't likely to go anywhere. What's to keep him from continuing his same run? And if Brady Hoke struggles this season, what's to keep Michigan State from benefiting from another year or two of instability in Ann Arbor?

One might be with staff continuity. Michigan State has enjoyed the services of elite DC Pat Narduzzi since 2007, and his days in East Lansing are surely numbered. Narduzzi was a hot name in many coaching openings this offseason, and baring something highly unexpected, he's likely to take a head coaching job sooner rather than later. Should he leave, will Michigan State find somebody who can replicate his player development ability? Will WalrusBall eventually catch up to Michigan State? Please?

Of course, it's worth noting that Michigan State is on the precipice of flipping Ohio State commit Jamarco Jones. That one 4-star, while not insignificant to the Spartans' overall class ranking, wouldn't doom what's going to be a top-5 class for the Buckeyes either way, however. It certainly represents a nice proxy war win for Sparty over the Bucks, but it'd be more the result of Jones' relationship with his fellow Core 6 training teammates than anything OSU or MSU did or didn't do. And if MSU fails to win the East next season, it's not likely to have much long term ramifications either way.

The Spartans may be the highest ranked Big Ten football team in the preseason, and the road to a league title will probably run through East Lansing for next season. Whether that will be the case moving forward, thanks to a tougher division and overall recruiting inequality, remains very much an unsettled question.

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