Mel Tucker and Michigan State's football players have talked about competing for championships in 2022 since spring practice began at the end of March.
Regardless of national assumption or fan expectation, the way the Spartans have talked this offseason, it's clear that in their minds the 2022 season is a "championship or bust" campaign.
If that's the goal for Michigan State, Tucker must solve the same problem that every Big Ten East head coach — save one — faces each season: How do I beat Ohio State?
Tucker's turnaround from 2-5 in Year 1 to 11-2 in Year 2 was a remarkable feat, but the Spartans have not been competitive in two matchups with the Buckeyes during the head coach's tenure in East Lansing.
Michigan State lost by 40 points, 52-12, on it's own field in 2020, and was then run out of Columbus last season, losing by a ghastly 49 points, 56-7.
Following both losses to the Buckeyes, Tucker said there was no secret to what the Spartans needed in order to compete with Ohio State. Michigan State needed to recruit at a higher level and close the talent and depth gaps between themselves as the Buckeyes.
Speaking at Big Ten Media Days late last month, Tucker pointed right to that when asked again about Ohio State.
“That was the program that we felt there was the most distance between us, in terms of depth in the roster," Tucker said. "Obviously, when you have a team that’s in your division, you need to build your team to beat that team.
“That was probably the biggest margin, in terms of players and depth, of the teams that we played. We know what we’re up against.”
While Tucker is so far winless against the Buckeyes, Michigan State has gone 2-0 against Michigan, 1-0 against Maryland and 1-1 against Penn State, Indiana and Rutgers within it's division.
Michigan State's head coach, who's spent time as an assistant coach for various NFL franchises, likened facing Ohio State each season to the toughest division opponent teams face in the professional ranks.
“If you’re in the NFL and you’re with the Browns, you’ve got Pittsburgh and Baltimore," Tucker said. "You’ve got to build your team, you’ve got to get out of your division if you want to control your own destiny. So, obviously, we know that that’s a team, if we’re going to control our own destiny in regards of winning a championship, we’ve got to find a way to beat those guys.”
This is a challenge that almost every Big Ten team has had to deal with. Since the conference realigned its divisions into an East-West format in 2014, the Buckeyes have won five of the eight league championships. The other three champions — Michigan State (2015), Penn State (2016) and Michigan (2021) — each beat the Buckeyes during the regular season the year they won the Big Ten.
The West division, meanwhile, has not won a single Big Ten championship since the realignment and has gone 0-5 against Ohio State in title games (Wisconsin, 0-3; Northwestern, 0-2).
Closing the gap with the Buckeyes is easier said then done, but Michigan State took a step in the right direction with a 2022 recruiting class that ranked No. 23 in the country. The Spartans also currently have 10 four-star players committed to their 2023 class.
But after two losses by over 40 points in each of the last two meetings, has Michigan State closed the gap enough take down the Buckeyes in 2022 in pursuit of a Big Ten title?
“We’ll see,” Tucker said with a little chuckle. “There’s a date for the game, so we’ll find out here pretty soon.”
Michigan State hosts Ohio State on Oct. 8 at Spartan Stadium.