Expectations high as No. 15 Michigan State hosts Western Michigan originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
The biggest question for No. 15 Michigan State going into this season is pretty simple.
How will the Spartans handle increased expectations?
There certainly weren't any for Michigan State going into last year. The Spartans were unranked going into head coach Mel Tucker's second year -- which followed a COVID-shortened first year -- and qualifying for any bowl game would be considered a good season.
All the Spartans did from there was finish 11-2, beat archival Michigan, win a New Year's Six bowl game by beating Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl, and help earn Tucker a new 10-year, $95 million contract.
Now, the cost of that success is that Michigan State fans are expecting just as much, if not more, in 2022.
The first test comes Friday night when Michigan State hosts in-state rival Western Michigan in East Lansing, Mich.
"Guys are working with each other to make sure guys are doing what they are supposed to do on the field and off of the field as well," Tucker said. "That's one of the more difficult things to get done in my experience with a team. To get guys to get out of their comfort zone and address their teammates about what they need to be doing and how they need to be doing it on a consistent basis."
The biggest reason why people believe Michigan State won't match 2021 is because they don't have running back Kenneth Walker, who is now in the NFL after winning the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back.
Walker single-handedly carried the Michigan State offense at times, but there is still reason for optimism despite his absence.
The Spartans should feature one of the country's top passing tandems in junior quarterback Payton Thorne (3,240 yards, 27 TDs last year) and senior wideout Jayden Reed (1,026 receiving yards, 10 TDs in 2021).
Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger figures to lead a group of running backs that hope to replace Walker's production by committee.
Michigan State won 11 games last year despite a porous pass defense, which ranked last in the Big Ten and was among the worst in the country.
Tucker and the Spartans hope that some returnees to the defensive backfield with another year of experience and some transfer portal additions in the secondary and at linebacker will make the unit better.
Linebackers Jacoby Windmon (previously at UNLV) and Aaron Brule (Mississippi State), defensive back Ameer Speed (Georgia) and defensive lineman Khris Bogle (Florida) were among those who transferred to the Spartans over the offseason.
Michigan State opens against Western Michigan, whose offensive coordinator is Jeff Thorne, the father of Michigan State's starting quarterback.
The Broncos are coming off an 8-5 season in 2021 and were picked to finish fourth in the MAC West in the preseason poll.
"We're done talking about each other's offense and defense," WMU head coach Tim Lester said after the last practice of fall camp. "We're ready to get to work on the first opponent. We have still got a lot of competition at the OL position and the wide receiver position. We are rotating guys through."
Western Michigan figures to have a nice rushing attack this year behind the combination of returnees Sean Tyler and former Michigan State player La'Darius Jefferson, a duo that rushed for nearly 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns combined last year.
The Broncos will be breaking in a new quarterback after the graduation of standout Kaleb Eleby and must replace wideout Skyy Moore, who was drafted by Kansas City.
Defensively, seven starters do return for the Broncos, who haven't beaten Michigan State since 1919.