Tulsa suffered through an awful 2018 season. After a victory over an FCS opponent, the Golden Hurricane did not win again until splitting their four games in November, all within the American Athletic Conference. Part of the problem was allowing all but one opponent to score at least 23 points. Tulsa has recorded more than six victories in a season just once in the past six years.
Michigan State enters the 2019 campaign ranked in both major polls. The Associated Press lists the Spartans as No. 18. The coaches list MSU as the No. 20 team in the FBS. These rankings come in spite of a disappointing 7-6 season in 2018 plagued with injuries to many offensive players. The Spartans dropped three of their last four games, scoring only six points in each of those defeats.
Tulsa and Michigan State have never faced each other on the gridiron. The Spartans have a 5-3 record against members of the American Athletic Conference and its predecessor, the Big East. However, a victory over South Florida in 2013 was their only game against a current member of the AAC. Tulsa has one victory versus an opponent from the Big Ten (at home over Iowa in 1996) compared to seven defeats.
Kickoff: Friday, Aug. 30 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Spartans -22.5
For the Golden Hurricane to maintain any hope of remaining in this contest past halftime, the offense must be able to run the ball. In their three victories in 2018, the Blue and Gold offense averaged 298.3 yards on the ground. In their nine losses, opponents limited Tulsa to 169.7 rushing yards on average. The two opponents from Power 5 conferences, Texas and Arkansas, allowed the Golden Hurricane only 189 and 133 rushing yards, respectively.
Fortunately for Tulsa, running back Shamari Brooks came back for 2019. He led his teammates in carries (229) and rushing yards (967) and had the second-most touchdowns from scrimmage (seven). Last season, he ranked second in the American Athletic Conference in rushing attempts and plays from scrimmage (235). He also finished with ten rushing touchdowns in 2017, the eighth-highest number in the AAC in that season.
An additional returning contributor for Tulsa is junior running back Corey Taylor II, who was second on the team rushing attempts (178) and yards (846). He led the team in combined rushing/receiving touchdowns with 11. He ranked in the top 10 in five categories in the AAC: rushing attempts (10th), rushing touchdowns (seventh), plays from scrimmage (10 with 182), touchdowns from scrimmage (eighth) and total touchdowns (ninth).
The question is whether Brooks and Taylor can make any significant gains versus the Spartansâ defense. Michigan State returns eight starters from a particularly stingy squad in 2018. MSU allowed the fewest average yards per game on the ground (77.9) in the FBS.
The Spartans increasingly struggled with the ball as last season progressed. After Brian Lewerke sustained an injury at Penn State, the offense averaged only 11.3 points per game. In those seven games, MSU scored seven or fewer points in four of them.
Michigan State deployed nine different combinations of linemen. Two projected starters for this year, center Matt Allen and right guard Kevin Jarvis, missed three and four contests, respectively. Tyler Higby had to start at three different positions. Only right tackle Jordan Reid started every game in the same position. In total, five different players missed a total of sixteen games. Is this collection of experienced and healthy linemen ready to kick start the Green and Whiteâs offense?
Lewerke and his protectors were not the only Spartans on the offensive squad to miss multiple games due to injury. Eight different wide receivers sat out games. All of this seasonâs projected starting wideouts missed multiple games: Darrell Stewart (two), Cody White (four) and Jalen Nailor (five). Cam Chambers and Laress Nelson had to be held out of two and three games, respectively. Brad Salem, the former quarterbacks coach elevated to offensive coordinator, is putting in three-receiver sets, and he needs healthy bodies for the offense to function.
Fair or not, former offensive coordinator Dave Warner received most of the blame for the struggles with scoring and sustaining drives. Admittedly, it was difficult to call plays that succeed with a backup quarterback in a handful of games, a constantly shuffling offensive line and receivers who were not on the two-deep roster to start the season. Nevertheless, Mark Dantonio demoted Warner to quarterbacks coach.
What does the change in coordinator mean to the Spartansâ offensive machine? Metaphorically speaking, did Dantonio upgrade from a three-horsepower engine suited to a go-cart to a 950 horsepower of the Formula One variety, or at least one in the 850/NASCAR range? Or did he merely put a passenger in the driverâs seat and then slap a quick coat of paint on the vehicle?
Even if the new and possibly improved Spartan offense has not been fully implemented, Michigan State still has much more talent than Tulsa. MSUâs defense is stocked with plenty of future All-Big Ten selections and a few possible All-America choices. The Green and White defense will hold Tulsa in check while the offense works out the kinks.
â Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.