Michigan State coach Mel Tucker orchestrated one of the biggest turnarounds in college football last season with a nine-win improvement and top 10 finish in the country.
The unanimous Big Ten Coach of the Year, Tucker seemed to be establishing the Spartans as an elite program coming off an 11-win season, the team's best since 2015.
Surprisingly, though, just one disappointing loss to Washington last week changed some of the national perception for Tucker's team. Just how good is Michigan State in 2022?
The Spartans (2-1) went from No. 11 to out of the Associated Press top 25 — and are slight underdogs against P.J. Fleck's unranked Gophers (3-0) on Saturday in East Lansing.
"We watched the tape when we got back right away," Tucker said at his Monday news conference. "It was exactly what we thought we'd see. It was very disappointing. Very sick at the bad football we played."
Tucker still might have a Big Ten title contender. But the Spartans have to figure out what style offensively will be effective in the Big Ten this year. And they'll need to fix major issues defensively that were revealed in the 39-28 loss to the Huskies.
All-America tailback Kenneth Walker III won the Doak Walker Award given to the nation's top running back last year after rushing for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Tucker turned to sophomore Jalen Berger to replace Walker, who is now with the Seattle Seahawks. Berger eclipsed 100 yards in wins vs. Western Michigan and Akron to open the season, but Washington held him to just 27 yards last week.
The Spartans rushed for an abysmal 2.9 yards per carry, but they still managed to mount a comeback down 22 points with quarterback Payton Thorne throwing for 323 yards and three touchdowns.
"They've got a quarterback who has played a ton of football," Fleck said. "Got a ton of moxie, has great leadership and has great control of the offense. He plays with incredible passion and emotion. He's really the heartbeat of that team."
The Gophers have a candidate for running back of the year with Mohamed Ibrahim, but they lost their top wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell to a season-ending leg injury last week.
Michigan State doesn't have an Ibrahim-type talent in the backfield, but Thorne's go-to receiver, sophomore Keon Coleman, is starting to blossom into one of the league's best.
The 6-4 Coleman, also a member of the Spartans basketball team, had nine catches for 116 yards and two TDs in the loss at Washington. He ranks seventh in the Big Ten in receiving.
"They're playing really well," Fleck said of MSU's offense. "If you watch the Washington game, it was just a few series early where they got behind. If it weren't for a few series or a few execution things, it's interesting how that game would've turned out."
The biggest question mark for the Spartans entering their matchup against the Gophers will arguably be their pass defense. Washington's Michael Penix Jr., a former Indiana quarterback, threw for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns in the upset victory.
Michigan State's defense is the only unit in the Big Ten without an interception this season. The issues defensively are something Tucker takes personally since he directly oversees that side of the ball, but he hopes the Spartans can bounce back across the board.
"We're a very inconsistent football team right now," Tucker said. "I think the collective confidence of the team is as confident as it can be coming off a performance like that. … But the confidence comes from demonstrative ability."