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Michigan State football faces harsh reality

Are the Spartans in trouble?

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Michigan State football
© Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Michigan State football lost two offensive starters on Sunday and now the Spartans have to face a harsh reality.

Up until Sunday, the Michigan State football offseason turnover within the roster and coaching staff seemed normal by 2023 standards. The Spartans lost a couple of players to the transfer portal. Their up-and-coming pass rush specialist left for a dream job in the NFL. Another position coach left to coach at his alma mater.

None of it was ideal. But all understandable in the landscape of college football in 2023.

That all changed on Sunday when Payton Thorne and Keon Coleman entered the transfer portal within minutes of each other. Thorne was expected, by some, to be MSU’s starting quarterback for a third season. Coleman was expected to build on his stellar 2022 season before leaving for the NFL.

If the departures from earlier felt like rumblings of uneasiness within the program, Sunday’s news amplifies that feeling significantly.

Let’s start with Thorne. I’ve seen some people make the argument that this was a signal that he’d lost his job as the starting quarterback. I don’t believe that to be the case. First off, Thorne started every game that Michigan State played the last two seasons. Even last year when things went downhill, at no point did the coaching staff go away from him. To me, this was the clearest indication of where he stood relative to the other players at the position. Thorne also admitted that he played hurt all last season after getting dinged in the Western Michigan game. The coaching staff told us with their decision making that a less than 100 percent Thorne was still their best option.

Secondly, from what I saw and heard at the spring game in 2023, Thorne would still be the guy if there were a game tomorrow. Noah Kim has closed that gap. No doubt. To what degree, though, we don’t know. At the very worst, though, this was an open competition heading into fall camp. An open competition that Thorne would be favored to win because at no point has Kim proven in a game setting that he’s a better quarterback. So, if he’s not leaving for the opportunity to start elsewhere, then why is he leaving?

The unfortunate answer to that question may be in plain sight. Because now it’s time to talk about Coleman. He is not only Michigan State’s best player, but he could be one of the best players in America next season. At this point, with the current rules in place regarding transfers, Coleman can essentially pick where he wants to play. He can be the centerpiece of an offense and should have every opportunity to show his value to NFL executives. On Sunday, though, he chose to showcase those traits at a place other than Michigan State.

So what’s going on? If Thorne and Coleman know they have roles at MSU, then why are they leaving? Are they feuding with the coaching staff? Other players? Are they sensing regression from the team and getting out early? Do they feel they’re being used incorrectly? Are they unhappy with NIL opportunities? We don’t know. We may never know. But it signifies a problem.

High-level players don’t leave a place like Michigan State. These moves might be expected at a place like Akron or San Jose State. Players leave that type of a situation for NIL money or a chance to play on bigger stages. Michigan State is one of the 20-25 schools in America where those advantages are already built in. The inability to retain those types of players is a Michigan State problem. It’s not a 2023 landscape problem.

Which brings us to Mel Tucker and the program as a whole. Sunday presented a sobering reality for where this thing could be headed. All of the momentum that was built up after the 2021 season seems to have vanished. The transfer portal goes both ways. It can be the equalizer for quick turnarounds. It can also be the accelerator to a spiraling downfall. Michigan State was expected to be better in 2023 than they were last season. They got undeniably worse on Sunday.

Sure, when one door closes, another one opens. Michigan State football has plenty of other capable talents on its roster.

Maybe Kim will turn into Joe Montana. Maybe this gives Katin Houser the opportunity he needs. We don’t know. But the message that was sent on Sunday was powerful. Two of Michigan State’s best players don’t believe in the path forward. Yes, that’s a personal decision and everyone’s situation is different. But how many other guys in that locker room feel the same way?

The path forward for Mel Tucker is difficult. Not impossible by any means, but difficult. In the short term, he’ll have to figure out how to make MSU a better football team without two starters. Because this is college football after all, and winning cures everything. In the long-term, though, he’ll have to pump some confidence and reassurance into a program that took a shot in the ribs on Sunday. If he is the coach and leader we all believe he is, the Spartans will get through this. But this was an unexpected stumble in the journey.

Michigan State believes it is an ascending program within college football. The decisions made on Sunday tell a different story. Fortunately for MSU and its fans, the story isn’t over yet. It’s just not going the way it had hoped.

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