NCF Nation: Mark Dantonio

The motion W on Paul Chryst's hat and sweatshirt next fall won't stand for wandering eye. For that, Wisconsin fans can breath a sigh of relief.

It's humbling for a fan base to see a coach voluntarily leave its program. It's especially humbling to see it happen twice in the past three years. It's especially, especially humbling when coaches leave a winning, established program that is coming off appearances in the Big Ten championship game.

Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen clearly didn't see Wisconsin as a destination job. Bielema wanted to chase a championship in the nation's toughest conference at a program flush with resources. Andersen became fed up with Wisconsin's admissions office and the difficulty of getting his targeted players into school. Their eyes wandered and they left town.

Chryst is coming home to Madison, where he spent most of his childhood, his college years and part of his adult life as a Badgers assistant in 2002 and again from 2005-11. He intends to stay for a while. Those close to him say Wisconsin is his dream college job and that he would only leave to lead an NFL team. Coincidentally, Chryst did the reverse Gary Andersen, leaving Oregon State's offensive coordinator post for Wisconsin's after the 2004 season.

[+] EnlargePaul Chryst
Jason Redmond/Associated PressGetting Paul Chryst in the fold should close the revolving door at Wisconsin for a while.
Hiring a capable coach is Wisconsin's first priority here, and despite inheriting a mess in Pittsburgh from Todd Graham and yielding middling results, Chryst can deliver with the Badgers. But it's also important for the Badgers -- and the Big Ten -- to bring in coaches who want to stick around.

Let's not be delusional about the Big Ten or modern-day coaches. The days of Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Barry Alvarez, Hayden Fry, Joe Paterno and others who saw Big Ten programs as career endpoints likely are over. Kirk Ferentz is completing his 16th season at Iowa, while Pat Fitzgerald just finished his ninth at Northwestern and Mark Dantonio wraps up his eighth at Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. None seems to be in a hurry to leave on their own accord, but they're more the exceptions in today's game.

Expecting any coach to spend 15-20 years in one place isn't realistic. But the Big Ten also can't have coaches voluntarily leaving every season. A Big Ten coach has chosen to depart in each of the past three seasons: Bielema (2012), Penn State's Bill O'Brien (2013) and now Andersen. Of the three, only O'Brien left for a definitive step up, the NFL's Houston Texans.

Look at Big Ten basketball, which boasts elite coaches -- Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, Ohio State's Thad Matta and Michigan's John Beilein -- who view their jobs as destinations. That's what Big Ten football needs.

Chryst puts a stop in the revolving door at Wisconsin, and several of the Big Ten's top programs could be entering a period of coaching stability:

Nebraska: Whether Cornhuskers fans like the Mike Riley hire or not, Riley isn't going anywhere. He sees Nebraska as a last stop, and despite his age (61), he still has great energy for the job. His predecessor, Bo Pelini, didn't voluntarily leave Nebraska, but there were incessant rumors during his tenure about him looking at other jobs. Some think if Nebraska had won the 2012 Big Ten title game instead of Wisconsin, Pelini would have landed at Arkansas instead of Bielema.

Ohio State: Urban Meyer quickly has rebuilt Ohio State into a national power and a playoff contender for years to come. There's always some concern about Meyer's longevity at a job, but he's not mentioned for NFL positions and seems completely settled in Columbus. He might not coach the Buckeyes for 10-15 years, but he's seemingly not on the verge of an exit, either.

Penn State: Amid the excitement of his arrival, James Franklin repeatedly noted that Penn State had work to do with its roster deficiencies, which showed up throughout the fall. Franklin likely will see this process through, and, like Meyer in Ohio, he has roots in Pennsylvania. He has plenty of job security, and unless he becomes frustrated with the post-sanctions effects, won't be looking to leave.

Michigan is the wild card here, but the Wolverines should be seeking some stability in its next coach. After having just three coaches between 1969 and 2007, Michigan will have its third in eight seasons next fall. Jim Harbaugh is the home run hire for the Wolverines, but not if he returns to the NFL in two or three years. Michigan needs an elite coach who wants to stick around, and it shouldn't compromise either criteria. Brady Hoke would have stayed in Ann Arbor forever, but he wasn't getting it done on the field.

Stability doesn't automatically equal success. After a very disappointing regular season, Iowa's Ferentz finds himself in a category of long-tenured, mostly successful coaches -- Georgia's Mark Richt, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy -- who some want to see move on. Stability can become stale, but cycling through coaches every few years almost guarantees struggle.

Amazingly, Wisconsin has avoided a downturn despite its coaching turnover. Now it has a coach who can keep things rolling without constantly looking for the next best thing.

Michigan's impending hire should calm the Big Ten coaching carousel for a while. And with relative stability at the top programs, the league could be on the verge of a step forward.
Melvin Gordon Zach Bolinger/Icon SportswireWisconsin star Melvin Gordon is one of seven 1,000-yard rushers in the Big Ten this season.
Melvin Gordon can be mesmerizing. He's such a dynamic runner, seemingly always on the verge of another huge play, that it's hard to ever turn away.

The Wisconsin junior is having a Heisman Trophy-caliber season even if he doesn't win the award next month. Although Gordon's FBS single-game rushing record of 408 yards lasted a single week, as Oklahoma's Samaje Perine eclipsed it Saturday, Gordon still became the fastest player in FBS history to reach 2,000 yards in a season (241 carries). He leads the nation with 2,109 yards. According to Wisconsin, his rushing total from the first three quarters alone (1,915 yards) still would lead the nation.

But there are other standout running backs in the Big Ten -- great ones and really good ones. As the season concludes this week for a handful of teams, it's important to acknowledge all of them. Because we might never a group of Big Ten backs like this one in the same season.

"There's a lot of guys in this league that are going to be playing on Sundays from that specific position," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said Sunday.

[+] EnlargeTevin Coleman
AP Photo/Darron CummingsTevin Coleman has been a bright spot for Indiana, setting the school's single-season rushing mark.
Think about what Tevin Coleman felt like the day Gordon went for 408. Playing Rutgers at the same time Gordon gashed Nebraska, Coleman went for 307 yards, the second-highest total in Indiana history (behind Anthony Thompson's 377, the Big Ten record that Gordon smashed). Coleman had déjà vu Saturday against Ohio State, rushing for 228 yards and three touchdowns, breaking the IU single-season rushing record but being overshadowed because he plays on a losing team.

How high would Coleman's stock be if he played for a contender?

At least Coleman's name is known around the Big Ten and, to a degree, around the country. No one is talking about Jeremy Langford. Not even in the Big Ten. OK, maybe in East Lansing. But nowhere else.

Here's what Langford did this past Saturday: rushed for 126 yards and two touchdowns as Michigan State stomped Rutgers. It marked his 15th consecutive 100-yard rushing performance against a Big Ten opponent. Think about that. He has the longest active streak of 100-yard rushing performances against conference opponents since at least 1996.

Langford has 1,242 rush yards and 17 touchdowns, and he's barely a blip on the Big Ten radar. It's a tribute to the league's incredible depth at running back. Langford is quietly having another productive season a year after quietly rushing for 1,422 yards on a team that won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl. But it's time he gets his due as one of the more consistent runners in the country the past two seasons.

"He's one of the reasons we won 13 games last year and won nine this year," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Sunday night. "Remember, he had 23 yards rushing coming into his junior year. He's put together a string of 14 100-yard games in [regular-season] conference play.

"He's been a tremendous performer for us."

Minnesota's David Cobb has a slightly higher profile than Langford, but he also gets overlooked in a league loaded with star running backs. Cobb is one of the nation's most physical and prolific backs, yet his steak evidently doesn't match Gordon's or Coleman's sizzle. Despite 1,350 rush yards entering play Saturday, Cobb amazingly didn't make the cut for Doak Walker Award semifinalists.

Cobb left Saturday's win against Nebraska with a hamstring injury. He's questionable for this week's showdown against Wisconsin, although he tweeted that he'll be ready to go. If so, the game at Camp Randall Stadium will feature the longest uninterrupted rivalry in the FBS, the Big Ten West Division title at stake, a giant axe and two of the nation's best running backs. Sign me up.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State's Jeremy Langford has been the mark of consistency with 15 straight 100-yard rushing games in Big Ten play.
Did you know that two more Big Ten backs joined the 1,000-yard club Saturday? Don't feel bad if you were too busy watching Mesmerizing Melvin rack up 207 rush yards and two touchdowns against Iowa.

Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott and Northwestern's Justin Jackson both eclipsed 1,o00 yards. Elliott recorded his fourth 100-yard rushing performance in Big Ten play and fifth of the season against Indiana. Jackson, a true freshman, boasts five 100-yard rushing performances in the past seven games and consistently produces for a Northwestern offense that has struggled most of the season.

The Big Ten now has seven 1,000-yard rushers with a week to go in the regular season. No other league has more than five. The Big Ten has four players -- Gordon, Coleman, Cobb and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah -- with more than 1,400 rush yards. No other league has more than two.

The surge has taken place without star rushers from Michigan or Penn State, two traditionally elite running programs, and despite the season-ending injury to Rutgers standout Paul James. Dantonio, who has spent much of his career in the Big Ten, recalls the running back depth in the mid-to-late 1990s, when the league had stars like Wisconsin's Ron Dayne, Ohio State's Eddie George, Michigan's Tim Biakabutuka and Penn State's Curtis Enis.

"It seemed like everybody had a guy," Dantonio said. "It's very similar to that [now]. You've got four or five guys who really deserve to be first-team all-conference players. Somebody's going to get left out in the cold a little bit."

That's life in the league of running backs, but this group, not just Gordon, should not soon be forgotten.
Lessons learned from the second-to-last week of the Big Ten regular season:

1. Ohio State won but may lose ground: If "game control" is as important as College Football Playoff selection committee chairman Jeff Long said last week, Ohio State should find itself in a spot of bother come Tuesday night. The No. 6 Buckeyes led Indiana just 14-13 at halftime and trailed deep into the third quarter before pulling out a 42-27 win. And remember that these Hoosiers are winless in Big Ten play and now just 3-8 overall. A letdown after winning on the road against Michigan State and Minnesota could have been expected, but Urban Meyer's team needs all the positive impressions it can create. It wouldn't be surprising to see Ohio State slip in next week's poll, just as TCU did after a shaky win over Kansas. On the plus side, the Buckeyes clinched a spot in the Big Ten championship game and will have a chance to add a quality win there. If all else fails, Meyer & Co. should just remind everybody that Indiana did beat Missouri -- or that Florida State barely wins every week.

[+] EnlargeJalin Marshall
Jason Mowry/Icon SportswireOhio State's Jalin Marshall scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to go along with another score late in the third, rallying Ohio State past Indiana.
2. One Axe to rule the West: Minnesota's 28-24 win at Nebraska and Wisconsin's 26-24 road victory over Iowa simplified the West Division race. The Gophers and Badgers are the last two contenders left, and in a stroke of great fortune, they will play for Paul Bunyan's Axe next Saturday in Madison. The longest-played rivalry in the FBS will have its most meaning in years, with the winner advancing to the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State. Wisconsin has won the ax 10 straight years, so Minnesota has its work cut out. But the Gophers have been proving people wrong all season. They will need a healthy David Cobb to have a chance.

3. Land of Lincoln game holds intrigue: If we had told you a few weeks ago that the season finale between Illinois and Northwestern would be really interesting, you probably would have laughed. But the Wildcats have gotten hot at the right time, upsetting Notre Dame in overtime last week and cruising past Purdue 38-14 on Saturday to get to five wins. Illinois, meanwhile, edged Penn State on a late field goal 16-14 for its fifth victory. So the Land of Lincoln Trophy game in Evanston will be a bowl play-in game for both sides. And it might just decide whether Tim Beckman keeps his job for another year in Champaign. Neither team's projected starting quarterback may play a huge role, as Northwestern's Trevor Siemian injured his leg against Purdue and Reilly O'Toole came in for an ineffective and perhaps-still-a-bit-gimpy Wes Lunt in the Illini's win.

4. Michigan State belongs in a major bowl: Instead of sulking after the home loss to Ohio State, the Spartans have taken out their frustrations on the Big Ten's newbies. After a 37-15 win at Maryland last week, Michigan State romped past Rutgers 45-3 on Saturday. Mark Dantonio had some fun on Senior Day, starting Tony Lippett on offense and defense, calling for a fake field goal while ahead 35-0 and giving offensive lineman Connor Kruse a carry. It's clear that the No. 11 Spartans are still one of the top teams in the country, with their only losses coming to potential playoff teams. They deserve to make one of the major bowls outside the playoff -- the Fiesta, perhaps? -- and get a shot against an outstanding opponent from a major conference. If they play like they have the past couple of weeks, they'll have a great chance to win a big bowl, too.

5. Maryland is having a nice first Big Ten season: Winning at Penn State and 23-16 on Saturday at Michigan is a pretty nice way to introduce yourself to the league, even if those two programs are at near historic low points. Randy Edsall's Terrapins can post an 8-4 record by beating Rutgers at home next week. Their only losses would be to three of the league's top teams -- Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State -- and a close call at home against West Virginia. They also beat Iowa and weren't quite as hapless in big games as fellow newcomer Rutgers, which was outscored 180-43 in its four games against ranked Big Ten opponents. Maryland still has to finish it off this week, but a third-place showing in the Big Ten East and an eight-win season would make for a very solid conference debut.
Michigan State was only a few minutes from taking a touchdown lead over Ohio State into halftime last Saturday night when the big-play bug struck again. And again.

With 3:19 left in the second quarter, Buckeye receiver Michael Thomas shook free of a tackler near the 30-yard line and took J.T. Barrett’s slant pass 79 yards for a game-tying touchdown. It was the longest play a Michigan State defense has allowed since the end of the 2011 season. Two minutes and five players later, Barrett struck again. This time it was Devin Smith sneaking behind the Spartan secondary for a 44-yard touchdown pass. The late 14-point swing gave the Buckeyes a lead from which they never looked back.

[+] EnlargeDevin Smith/Darian Hicks,
AP Photo/Al GoldisDarian Hicks and the Spartans' defense have struggled with allowing the big plays this season.
 “Big plays lead to momentum shifts, and that’s why we have to do a better job of eliminating them,” Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond said after the game. “That’s something we harp on every week and throughout camp, explosive plays.”

Explosive plays are the reason Ohio State jumped to No. 8 in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings after the 49-37 win, and the reason why Michigan State will be fighting for bowl game scraps during the final three weeks of the regular season. Five times the Buckeyes ran plays that picked up 40-plus yards in East Lansing last weekend. All five of them (which accounted for 268 of Ohio State’s 568 offensive yards) occurred on drives that ended in touchdowns.

Wins helped cover the cracks in Michigan State’s proud defense earlier this season, but broken plays have been an issue throughout the year. Opponents have gained 40 or more yards on a single play 17 times against Michigan State in 2014. Only eight teams in the FBS have allowed more.

Giving up the long ball is a major change for a team that has built its recent success on an air-tight defense that avoids the mistakes that so often lead to losses. It’s a problem that threatens the defensive philosophy that has been largely responsible for Michigan State’s climb to a conference powerhouse.

“I don’t know,” said cornerback Darian Hicks, who got turned around in man coverage on Thomas’ 79-yard score. “We have new starters here. Obviously our team is not the same as last year.”

Last year’s Rose Bowl champions used an aggressive, suffocating defense to carry its fledgling offense early in the year. Head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi use a run-stuffing system based on frequently leaving its defensive backs on an island against opposing receivers. It’s a gamble, but the Spartans typically tip the odds in their favor with superior, well-trained athletes.

Four starters are gone from 2013’s stacked deck in the back seven. They include the Jim Thorpe Award winner at cornerback, two third-team All-Americans at linebacker and a first team All-Big Ten pick at safety. Their replacements have held their own for the most part this season, but against Michigan State’s two toughest opponents (Oregon and Ohio State), the defense surrendered 95 points. When the other team has playmakers that can match Michigan State’s athleticism, the Spartans have been burned this fall.

Narduzzi said he tried to keep his defensive backs out of one-on-one battles more often against the Buckeyes, but he didn’t want to abandon the principles that have made his defense so successful.

“Our kids have confidence in what we do,” he said. “... My thing is man, but we do play a lot of zone. [Ohio State did] a good job, and we weren't getting reroutes. They did a nice job. You have also got to get enough guys up there to stop the run. It's a fine line.”

Michigan State has leaned more on its offense this fall to hit some big plays of its own. The style change means that, at times, the defense spends more time on the field than in past years and gets stuck in more difficult position. The offense continued its prolific output with 37 points against the Buckeyes, but the players on that side of the ball didn’t feel like they did enough either.

“We put up 500 yards of offense, but when it comes down to it, we have to score more points than the other team,” tackle Jack Conklin said. “No matter where the defense is or how well they’re doing, they held us in games last year and this year at certain times. We need to step up to help them out, and we fell short.”

One loss to one of the country’s top teams is no reason to rethink the risk-reward benefits of Michigan State’s defense. That approach has been the foundation with which the Spartans won 20 of their past 23 games.

The loss and the big plays that brought it on are a reminder, though, if not a warning. As Michigan State continues to evolve, Dantonio and Narduzzi must recruit and develop the very best in the secondary if they want to continue the same defensive approach. The Spartan defense has to find a way to stop elite playmakers and beat the types of teams that help you grow from a perennial Big Ten power to a national championship contender.
It’s been 97 weeks since the Michigan State Spartans woke up on a Monday morning without the motivation of a potential championship to get them out of bed.

The carrot of a championship trophy dropped in front of Michigan State’s nose, as it does for most college football programs beginning their offseason, the day after winning the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. A championship of one variety or another remained realistically in reach from then until Saturday night when No. 14 Ohio State and rising star J.T. Barrett snatched the carrot away with a 49-37 win in East Lansing.

"It’s hard. It’s something that’s new for us," said Spartans tackle Jack Conklin. "We’ve been winning and winning."

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesQB Connor Cook and Michigan State must find a way to rebound from their second loss of the season.
Sure, this is college football and no team should abandon hope until the final crack in the window of opportunity is sealed shut. Crazy things happen on Saturdays in November. But the Spartans now need Ohio State to lose two of its next three games (against Minnesota, Indiana and Michigan) to crawl back into the Big Ten championship picture. Even an improbable conference title would still leave Michigan State with virtually no chance of reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff.

The Spartans aren’t alone in their despair following an "Elimination Saturday" that lived up to its billing. Four former legitimate playoff contenders start this week in need of a miracle to get back into the running. That leaves Mark Dantonio (along with the coaches from Auburn, Kansas State and Notre Dame) among the first to grapple with one of the biggest concerns raised when the NCAA scrapped its previous BCS format for a four-team playoff: Once you’re no longer playing for a title shot, what’s the point?

Dantonio and his players showed no signs that they were unwilling to pull themselves off the mat in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s loss. The coach said he still considers the incessant discussion about playoff spots a good thing for the sport and no different than the buzz that surrounded BCS bowls in past years.

Finding a way to move past goal-crushing, soul-crushing losses is nothing new for the sport.

"I think you play it out," Dantonio said when asked what remained for his team to acheive. "Right now the most important thing is that we only have one loss in the Big Ten and an important thing right now is, don't get two. That's what we can control. We're a one-loss team right now. Don't get two losses."

The ceiling, Dantonio admitted, has slipped from a great season to a good one for the 2014 Spartans. The task now is making sure it doesn’t slip further by taking care of Maryland, Rutgers and Penn State to close out the regular season.

It wasn’t long ago that a 10-2 record with both losses to potential playoff teams would be deemed outstanding in East Lansing, far better than good. Showing up to play without championships on the line was the norm for much of Dantonio's time as the head of the program. The Spartans haven’t been among the elite long enough to forget the middle class, one-week-at-a-time work ethic that helps a team recover from tough losses.

"I’ve been here when he had a couple bad seasons. I don’t’ want to have that season again," senior running back Jeremy Langford said. "We can’t determine what happens with Ohio State and all them. We’ve got three more games guaranteed, and we have to go get those wins."

This is what it means to handle success. Can you weather the magnified failures that come with it? The rest of November will be Michigan State’s first real chance since climbing into the top tier of college football programs in the middle of last season to prove they can sustain the focus it takes to win in the wake of failure. Langford said it was up to the seniors, who remember when championships didn't dangle in front of their noses, to make sure the rest of the team continues to move forward.

On Monday morning Langford and his teammates pulled themselves out of bed and started preparing for the next opponent for the 98th time since winning the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Life goes on, and so must the Spartans.
Jeremy Langford likes to think of himself as a big-game back at Michigan State.

The senior ran a career-high 35 times for 177 yards and three touchdowns in a blowout of rival Michigan two weeks ago, including a final kick-in-the-teeth score with 30 seconds remaining. He had 120 yards against the Wolverines last year and carried the freight in the Big Ten championship against Ohio State and a Rose Bowl victory over Stanford, scoring touchdowns in all three games.

“I feel like when they need someone to make a play, they can give me the ball and I have a chance to do that,” Langford said. “I pressure myself a lot to be able to make that big play and take that weight off of our shoulders.”

Michigan State’s biggest game of the regular season comes Saturday night against No. 14 Ohio State – a showdown between two of the Big Ten’s top teams with conference championship and College Football Playoff implications on the line. If Langford is to have any more chances to play on the grand stage during his college career, he and the 7-1 Spartans will need to earn them this weekend.

Despite leading the league in touchdowns a year ago and rushing for at least 100 yards in 12 consecutive conference games – a streak unmatched by Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah or any other back in the Big Ten – Langford flies under the radar compared to some of his counterparts having big seasons in the Midwest. While he says he doesn’t think about how he stacks up with other runners around the conference, being largely left out of the conversation bodes well for a player whose career has been largely fueled by frustration.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
AP Photo/Al GoldisJeremy Langford has rushed for 100 yards or more in 12 consecutive Big Ten games.
The trick to getting Langford to play at his best, according to high school coach Tim Hardin, is to get him angry. Hardin said he discovered this when Langford was starting to grow complacent as a junior at John Glenn High School in Westland, Michigan. The back who had made his coach’s jaw drop the first time he touched the ball as a sophomore wasn’t having the breakout season they had expected, so Hardin started to take away his carries.

“I learned that year that it was really good to piss him off,” Hardin said. “If I got him nice and pissed off, he was a hard guy to stop.”

Langford’s attitude made him a perfect fit for Michigan State and head coach Mark Dantonio, a master at keeping his players’ shoulders crested with chips. The transition wasn’t an easy one, though.

After redshirting his freshman season, Langford moved to cornerback in his second year. The defensive backfield is where most of Michigan State’s top athletes who don’t have a spot in the two-deep end up. Leading receiver Tony Lippett spent time at cornerback as well before he and Langford moved back to offense. Langford bounced around in the defensive backfield and at wide receiver for a couple seasons, which didn’t sit well.

“Yes, it was frustrating, especially when I was younger and I thought younger,” Langford said. “You know you want something fast. You don’t really want to work for it. Now I realize that is something I had to go through to be where I’m at now.”

His shot at running back came before Langford’s junior year when classmate Le’Veon Bell departed for the NFL draft, leaving the Spartans without any significant experience in the backfield. Langford battled for the job that spring with converted linebacker Riley Bullough, among others, but didn’t show the fire Michigan State expected. His coaches called Hardin and Langford’s father and Langford’s best friend and brought all of them up to East Lansing to talk him into getting mad again. And they did.

Langford won the starting job and hit his stride along with the rest of the offense in late September. Iowa held him to 43 yards in his Big Ten debut, but he’s topped 100 yards in every conference game since then.

“Jeremy Langford was a great athlete, but he was a wide receiver, he was a tailback, safety and corner during the previous three years,” Dantonio said. “We moved him back to tailback and he responded about the third or fourth game in as he started getting touches. He became better and better, and obviously he was the go-to guy as the season progressed.”

Dantonio said Langford played a defining role in helping the Spartans running game find an identity last year. This season, as the Spartans join the top tier of college teams posting video-game numbers on offense, he’s helping them hang on to the hard-nosed identity Dantonio wants to maintain.

With Langford’s career headed on a steady upward trajectory, he’s had to trade anger for accountability when searching for his main motivation.

“I think as you get older, the coaches and players count on you more,” he said. “As we reach tougher competition the coaches need everybody to have big games, and that’s what I want to do.”
Looking back now, it’s the type of catch that seems routine for Michigan State receiver Tony Lippett. Early in the first quarter of the Spartans’ first Big Ten game of the 2013 season, at Iowa, Lippett pulled a jump-ball pass from quarterback Connor Cook up and over a defender 20 yards downfield. Ho-hum. Michigan State didn’t even score on the drive.

Nonetheless, that’s the play circled in the mind of co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner as a turning point for a group that enters this weekend's marquee matchup against Ohio State as the country's fifth-best scoring offense at 45.5 points per game this season. It sparked a rise unparalleled by any unit of any team in college football during the last 14 months.

[+] EnlargeDave Warner
AP Photo/Damian DovarganesWith Dave Warner calling the plays, Michigan State won the Rose Bowl last season and is ranked fifth in the country in scoring this season.
“For whatever reason, that sort of ignited us,” said Warner, who was promoted to his current position prior to the 2013 season. “From that point forward our receivers were making those 50-50 catches, the difficult ones. That became the habit, and they felt good about themselves.”

Those kinds of catches were hard to come by during the first few weeks of 2013. The receivers struggled to make plays and Michigan State struggled to find a quarterback who could help them. Catches like Lippett's helped build confidence between the receivers and Cook as he settled into the starting role, which in turn made Warner comfortable opening up the playbook he and the rest of the offensive coaching staff had refurbished months earlier.

Michigan State's offense in 2012 was spartan, void of luxuries like explosive plays and game-breaking performances. Head coach Mark Dantonio knew it was in need of some modernization. He started by hiring former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman and handing the play-calling reins to Warner, who had coached the quarterbacks for their first six years together in East Lansing.

“We were very basic. We were very much pound the football,” said Warner, who played quarterback for Syracuse in the 1980s. “We really weren’t very creative. He saw that we needed to change that.”

The offensive staff combed through film of teams from around the country, cherrypicking plays and concepts they liked. Jet sweeps, misdirection, back-shoulder fades -- all foreign concepts for an offense that had finished the previous season averaging 20 points per game, 110th among FBS teams. Warner added them all to the offense he still classifies as a strictly pro-style attack.

The end result is an offense that scores 45.5 points per game with a Maxwell Award candidate at quarterback and enough options around him to keep opposing defenses guessing who will break the next big play. On Saturday, that unit will trade blows with an Ohio State offense that has been just as potent. Both teams are redefining what it takes to win in the traditionally low-scoring, slug-it-out-in-the-trenches Big Ten.

Only one game this season (Baylor vs. TCU) has featured a matchup between two teams that score more often than the Spartans and Buckeyes. Amid all those points, the Spartans and Buckeyes refuse to define themselves with anything but the Midwest, blue-collar identity of their collective past. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said he expects Saturday’s game to be like two sledgehammers smashing into each other. Dantonio said he refuses to let offensive success make his team go soft.

“We want to be grounded in hard work,” Dantonio said. “That’s who we need to be. That’s just a part of the mentality that has to exist here.”

To preserve a grinding attitude while building an offense that no longer has to grind, Dantonio needed coaches who weren't afraid of creativity but understood that basic philosophy. He turned to Warner.

The earliest roots of Michigan State’s offensive turnaround, and the success that has followed, lie far deeper than Lippett’s catch at Iowa. Follow the string far enough back and eventually it lands at the feet of college football legend Johnny Majors.

The story goes like this: Near the end of his coaching career, Majors -- who won three SEC championships at Tennessee and a national title at Pittsburgh -- was holding court at a coaches’ convention in the mid-1990s. He told his rapt younger colleagues that he would never trust anyone but a former quarterback to call plays during his games. Only a quarterback, he reasoned, truly knows what it’s like to control an offense. One of the men listening was Glen Mason, who was treading on thin ice at Kansas after a 6-5 record a year earlier.

“I wasn’t really happy with what was going on. I thought we should be better at Kansas,” Mason said. “I thought what he said made sense, so I thought, let’s give it a try.”

Upon returning to Kansas, Mason took the play-calling duties away from his veteran offensive coordinator and handed them to the only former quarterback on his staff -- Warner. Despite a rough start to the year offensively, the JayHawks finished 10-2 that season, scoring 42 points in a win over No. 4 Colorado and 51 points against UCLA in the Aloha Bowl.

“Under Mase we were the old Woody Hayes football, ran the ball a ton,” Warner said. “In '95 we made a major transition to be more balanced. We did struggle early on. As we moved forward we got things rolling.”

The similarities between that year and the 2013 season aren’t lost on Warner. He helped Michigan State power through a rocky stretch (“To say we struggled is a major understatement,” he said) in early September and finish last season as Rose Bowl champion. He said building confidence -- a feeling the coaches say is rooted in their hard-working mentality -- was the key to getting the Spartans' offense where it is now.

During Warner’s first season as a play-caller in Kansas, the team’s up-and-coming secondary coach, a young Mark Dantonio, was taking note. When it came time for his own major transition at Michigan State, Dantonio knew where to turn.

Big Ten playoff tracker: Nov. 5

November, 5, 2014
Nov 5
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We're in the second week of the College Football Playoff rankings era, and the Big Ten still has a lot of work to do to get into the top four.

Let's see what it all means for the league's three playoff candidates:

Michigan State

Record: 7-1 (4-0 Big Ten)

Rank: No. 8

Next big obstacle: Saturday vs. No. 14 Ohio State

Reason for optimism: Ole Miss' loss to Auburn cleared another playoff contender out of the way, and others ahead of Michigan State still figure to lose. The Spartans' marquee Big Ten game arrives Saturday, and the best news is it's at home. A win over Ohio State should provide another boost and would likely mean a spot in the Big Ten championship game for Mark Dantonio's team.

Cause for concern: Despite that Ole Miss loss, the Spartans did not move up in the poll. In fact, they got leapfrogged by Kansas State. It remains to be seen if Michigan State can earn enough credibility to move up four more spots. And if you assume Florida State and at least one SEC team are locks for the playoff, that doesn't leave much room for the Spartans, who also would lose out to a potential one-loss Oregon.

Whom they’ll be rooting for this week: Themselves, first and foremost, as beating Ohio State is as important as anything. Michigan State also should root for continued SEC chaos, such as LSU beating Alabama and Texas A&M upsetting Auburn, along with favorable results in other leagues such as Virginia pulling off the shocker in Tallahassee and Oklahoma defeating Baylor.

Nebraska

Record: 8-1 (4-1)

Rank: No. 13

Next big obstacle: Nov. 15 at No. 25 Wisconsin

Reason for optimism: The Cornhuskers have only three regular-season games left, and their lone loss is by five points to Michigan State. If they can run the table and possibly beat the Spartans in a rematch in Indianapolis, their résumé would be really strong.

Cause for concern: Ameer Abdullah's health. The star running back suffered a mild strain of his left MCL last week vs. Purdue. Head coach Bo Pelini says Abdullah is doing great and should be back to 100 percent after the bye week to face Wisconsin. But knee injuries are tricky, and Nebraska is not a serious playoff contender without Abdullah.

Whom they’ll be rooting for this week: The Huskers want Michigan State to win Saturday to have a chance to avenge their only loss, though beating a one-loss Ohio State team in the Big Ten title game wouldn't be so bad, either. They need Wisconsin to beat Purdue to keep next week's game important. They also need several one-loss teams to go down.

Ohio State

Record: 7-1 (4-0)

Rank: No. 14

Next big obstacle: Saturday at No. 8 Michigan State

Reason for optimism: The Buckeyes finally get a chance for a truly impressive win this weekend at Michigan State. Other than the Penn State game, their offense has flourished for several weeks with five games of 50 or more points. There are few regular-season challenges left after the Spartans.

Cause for concern: The Virginia Tech loss in Week 2 continues to be an albatross for the Buckeyes, as the Hokies lost again last week (to Boston College, at home) and fell to 4-5. That's easily one of the worst -- if not the worst -- black marks against any playoff hopeful.

Whom they’ll be rooting for this week: Themselves, more than anything. Only by beating Michigan State will the Buckeyes have a serious chance at the playoff; even that might not be enough with the Virginia Tech loss.
Rod Oden still remembers pacing his kitchen more than a year ago, as he listened to Michigan State wideout Tony Lippett express his mounting frustration.

I haven’t done anything wrong. Why am I not playing? I’m at the point where I don’t even need to shower after games; I don’t even get the chance to go off.

[+] EnlargeTony Lippett
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsA change in Tony Lippett's confidence was sparked by a conversation he had with his high school coach.
 Oden listened intently in September of 2013 as he wandered “all throughout the house.” Neither Lippett nor Oden, his mentor and former high school coach, knew Lippett would be heralded as the Big Ten’s best just one season later. Or that his turnaround would be sparked not by the weight room, the field or the film room -- but by this very telephone call.

“He was reminding me I was one of the most dynamic players he ever coached and that I could go out and play this game at a high level, if I had the heart and desire,” Lippett said. “He told me to build a bridge with my coach out here, Coach [Terrence] Samuel, and do the things they wanted to see out of me day in and day out.”

At the time, Lippett had caught just four passes in his first four games. He officially received no starts during that stretch. So, at Oden's insistence, the introverted Lippett reached out to his position coach soon thereafter. They shared breakfast, and Samuel challenged him around the bye week: Go watch film on MSU greats Plaxico Burress and Charles Rogers; then go look at film of yourself.

Lippett said he was forced to “look in the mirror and stop looking at everybody else.” He sat in the film room and studied Burress’ arm extension, he stared at Rogers’ hips and feet, and he marveled at their vision. Then the cut-ups were replaced with a player similar in stature but who was slow in his transitions and didn’t get off the press nearly as well. It was him.

Lippett again phoned Oden to let him know he took his advice to heart and to update him on the film review.

“He said, ‘I got to work,’ ” Oden remembered. “I told him, ‘Work starts today.’ ”

The transformation was slow -- but immediate. Lippett would linger after practice to chat with his position coach. He’d sit closer to Samuel on the flights, as opposed to several rows back. He’d hit the film room harder, gazing at defensive backs’ feet and scribbling down notes.

With the help of Oden and Samuel, his confidence grew in lockstep with the offense’s improvement. He started in 10 games after that phone call. And, in the final six games of 2013, he accounted for at least 62 receiving yards in every contest and saved his best for the Rose Bowl, where he caught the game-winning touchdown.

Looking back, even Mark Dantonio didn’t need to pause long when asked when the transformation started.

“I do think it flipped on, it flipped right after the Notre Dame game,” Dantonio said earlier this month, alluding to September of last season. “He started catching the ball very well, and he’s such a confident player right now.”

That change might not have come without that phone call, or without Lippett’s relationship with Oden. The two still talk several times a week -- sometimes, Lippett will even phone during a Friday night halftime -- and Lippett still returns about a dozen times a year to train on mismatched barbells and an uneven track to chat in-person with his old coach.

They never seem to talk about how far he’s come -- but about how far he has to go. Even now, as Lippett leads the conference with 111.1 receiving yards per game and nine touchdowns, he’s not satisfied. He’ll acknowledge this is a good year but, in the same breath, he’ll wax poetic on how Alabama’s Amari Cooper has dominated.

But, every week since September of 2013, he’s also grown more determined that he can reach that level. He's more focused. And, above all, thanks to Oden, more confident.

“I feel like me playing confident is the biggest intangible I’ve improved upon because I’m still the same size, probably a little faster,” he said. “But heart and desire and confidence has risen in me a lot. And that’s what really shows.”

The College Football Playoff selection committee will issue its first-ever set of rankings Tuesday night.

It's an exciting time for fans and the signal of a bold new beginning for the sport. Many will be glued to their TV sets for the unveiling of the Top 25.

But in terms of appointment viewing for the three Big Ten figures who have the most to gain or lose tonight, this show might as well be a rerun of "New Girl."

On Tuesday's Big Ten coaches' teleconference, I asked Nebraska's Bo Pelini, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio and Ohio State's Urban Meyer -- all of whom should see their teams ranked in the top 20 -- how much attention they'd pay to the rankings release. All three said they didn't even plan on watching the show.

"I think you'll notice it, but I think our focus has got to be on our next football game," said Dantonio, whose team has a bye this week before hosting Ohio State. "That will be where the challenge is. I think this is the starting point for everything from a media perspective. I'm really not quite sure how it will even work."

"I'm sure I'll hear about it, but I've got other things on my mind than what that vote is today," Pelini said. "It's not something that affects me."

"I'm sure I'll look at them tomorrow morning," Meyer said. "We're practicing and it's a heavy game plan night. So I know I won't watch it, though I'm aware it's going to happen."

Playoff talk has dominated college football since the end of last season. But even though there are two men with major Big Ten ties on the committee -- Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez and former Nebraska coach/athletic director Tom Osborne -- the coaches all said they were unfamiliar with how the process will work.

Pelini even said he's had no conversations with Osborne about the playoff selection in the past year. I asked him if he'd address the playoff rankings with his team.

"No," he said. "Other than to ignore them."

None of the coaches expected to learn much from the rankings, either, though the committee could tip its hand on which areas -- like strength of schedule, good wins vs. bad losses -- it prioritizes.

"I haven't followed it that much," Meyer said. "I don't know if it's much different than the old BCS system when the BCS rankings came out. The only thing I look at it as, it's four teams instead of two. I really don't understand the whole dynamics."

"I think it's just another poll," Dantonio said. "I'm sure they have their methodology. It will be interesting to watch as it goes through. [But] we need to try and live in the present."

Tonight's show should attract a lot of interested college football fans. But not so many Big Ten coaches, apparently.

"I didn't know the rankings were tonight and will not watch them," Penn State's James Franklin said. "But I am curious about how the whole thing will play out. I will follow it from a distance in my free time."
Brady HokeAP Photo/Carlos OsorioMichigan dropped their fifth game of the season in a loss to rival Michigan State.
Add one more Mich-stake to the list for Brady Hoke’s tenure with the Wolverines.

A familiar pattern of bravado followed by butt-kicking followed by bumbling explanations unfolded this weekend on Michigan’s trip to East Lansing. Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden drove a tent stake into Michigan State’s turf shortly before the Spartans commenced a 35-11 beatdown of their rivals, their sixth win in the seven years since Michigan’s Michael Hart called them “little brother.”

Hoke said he wasn’t fully aware of what happened after the game Saturday night. He apologized on Sunday, and on Monday said the whole thing was “overblown” and he didn’t think it was another example of the disrespect that Mark Dantonio and the Spartans have complained about since Hart’s comments.

“[It] had nothing to do with Michigan State. It had to do with a commitment for our football team,” Hoke said. “No one feels worse than Joe. That wasn’t the intent.”

If that’s true, then add one more tone deaf communication failure to the year of mismanaged messages for Michigan. The program and its head coach seem hopelessly tangled up in trying to figure out how to act like “Michigan Men” in unfamiliar territory.

This time, though, Hoke shouldn’t be the only one to take the blame for the egg left on Michigan’s face. He did, of course, because that’s what head coaches are wont to do. But the current state of the mitten state rivalry, summed up neatly by Saturday’s events, isn’t Hoke’s doing. It’s another symptom of a problem that existed before he arrived and won’t be weeded out simply by hiring someone new to take his place.

Hoke isn’t absolved of all sins here. He hasn’t done much to stem the sense of entitlement most of the college football world sees when it looks at Michigan these days. He has been borderline delusional when asked about where his program stands at different points this season. His status as a Michigan Man -- the holier than thou title that no longer carries the connotation that Bo Schembechler intended ­-- was a big reason why he was hired in the first place.

While Hoke didn’t create the problems, his fault lies in failing to fix them, or even trying to fix them.

Michigan State’s players say they have always felt the upturned noses in Ann Arbor. It started for them while they were being recruited in high school, before Hoke’s staff arrived. Senior linebacker Taiwan Jones, a native Michigander, said the message sunk in further during his first game against the Wolverines in 2011.

“You come out at warm-ups and you hear them talking. You can feel the arrogance,” he said.

Given the recent evidence -- driving a stake into Michigan State’s turf and staring down the opposing sideline as a 17-point underdog -- it’s hard to argue with Jones’ assessment.

It wasn’t a tent stake that put Dantonio in a vindictive mood Saturday night. It was the long string of perceived slights that outdate both him and Hoke between the two schools. When asked Monday if he sees any signs of that disrespect, Hoke simply said: “No.”

Hoke can’t fix a problem that he doesn’t think exists. No one else at Michigan seems aware of an entitlement issue either, or at least no one is willing to say so publicly. Former Wolverines coach Rich Rodriguez had the audacity to suggest some changes might be in order, and he was escorted out of town after three year short years.

For a team that consistently recruits blue-chip talent and then gets bullied by the players they passed on, isn’t it worth considering that Dantonio might have a point? To turn a blind ear to a suggestion from the Rose Bowl champs seems like just another example of the arrogance that got Michigan State so riled up in the first place.

None of Hoke’s bosses have talked to him about his future at Michigan yet this year, but all signs point to a change in the near future. If that happens, the man who takes his place will have to wage war against the heavy weight of Michigan’s tradition. Unless the institution around him is willing to change, it’s hard to believe anyone will have success in that fight.

Michigan State was getting casual.

The Spartans were winning Big Ten games, just as they had in 2013, but not with their standard precision and 60-minute focus. A near blown lead against Nebraska. Poor decisions from players and coaches against Purdue. A sloppy first half at Indiana.

Other than a fleeting moment against Nebraska -- when Huskers receiver Alonzo Moore nearly corralled a touchdown in the final minute -- the Spartans never looked like they actually might lose. But they didn't look right, either. They seemed to be losing their edge.

Well, it's back. MSU can thank in-state rival Michigan for restoring it just in time.

The decision by Wolverines players -- I believe coach Brady Hoke when he says he had no involvement -- to drive a stake into the field at Spartan Stadium before Saturday's game lit the fuse for MSU coach Mark Dantonio and his team. After all they had done since Mike Hart's "Little Brother" comment in 2007 -- a 5-1 mark against Michigan, a 63-24 record overall, an outright Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship, and another shared Big Ten title -- the Spartans were still being shown up on their home field.

Maybe Michigan's act was more about itself than its opponent. Pardon the pun, but the Wolverines' disintegrating season was at stake Saturday. Michigan's recent losses to MSU stem from inferior talent development, coaching and execution, but the Wolverines also haven't matched the Spartans' intensity. The staking was intended to stoke the Maize and Blue.

[+] EnlargeKurtis Drummond
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State -- with a little help from rival Michigan -- regained its edge on Saturday.
It had a stronger effect on the men in green, a bunch that feels disrespected, even when they aren't, and uses snubs, real or perceived, as fuel.

Despite a few errors, MSU bullied Michigan again. And with a chance to kneel on the ball or score another touchdown in the closing seconds, MSU left its starters in and rubbed Michigan's nose in the end zone dirt.

"Just felt like we needed to put a stake in them at that point," Dantonio said after the 35-11 win.

The line was vintage Dantonio: premeditated and purposeful, smart and succinct, delivered with the trademark scowl on the outside but probably a small smile within. He paused for effect, then moments later addressed "the little brother stuff, all the disrespect" in a candid post-game session with reporters.

"Throwing the stake down in our back yard out here and coming out there like they're all that," he said. "It got shoved up ..."

Dantonio trailed off, but he made his point. We all know exactly where it got shoved.

Some teams are at their best when calm and cool. Dantonio and the Spartans are at their best when PO'd. Michigan's stake-and-shake sharpened Michigan State's focus.

The Spartans were supposed to beat Michigan. They have superior talent and coaching. But another watered-down win would have left an empty feeling before a two-week prep for the Ohio State showdown.

Instead, they recorded their most lopsided win against Michigan since 1967.

"We had enough emotion to carry us, but we also need to stay fresh and always need to bring our emotions to a football game," Dantonio said Sunday night. "That's sort of been a trademark of who we've become."

They had veered from their trademarks early in Big Ten play. Too many technical breakdowns on defense, too many risky throws by Connor Cook and even a poorly timed and executed fake punt attempt by Dantonio. And a casual attitude.

While MSU hiccuped, Ohio State had been punishing its opponents behind blossoming quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Nov. 8 narrative subtly shifted. An Ohio State win in Spartan Stadium, where the home side hasn't lost since 2012, began to look more plausible.

Then Saturday happened. The Spartans regained their swagger. Ohio State squandered a 17-0 halftime lead at Penn State and was extremely fortunate to win in two overtimes. Some who might have been leaning OSU might now be leaning MSU.

The Spartans shouldn't expect Ohio State to pull a similar pre-game stunt Nov. 8, nor should they expect the emotion from Saturday to carry them through the next 12 days. But the Michigan game reminded the Spartans of who they are and how they must play as the stakes get much, much higher.

"November ... defines you," Dantonio said Sunday. "We've got an off week, so we should be able to get fresh emotionally and fresh physically and have some additional time to work on Ohio State.

"There will be no excuses. We'll be ready to play."

Remember when MSU used to pull silly stunts like Michigan did? It used to be a silly program with a silly coach.

MSU is now an elite program with an elite coach. But this Spartans team hadn't looked elite until Saturday.

They needed a spark. Linebacker Joe Bolden and his Michigan teammates provided it.

MSU now can get back to its high-stakes mission: winning another championship.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 9

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
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It's an interesting weekend for the Big Ten. On one hand, we have an intra-state rivalry on tap along with a nationally televised night game at one of the best atmospheres in the country.

On the other, only one of the conference's five games is expected to be close. Four of the underdogs are picked to lose by double digits this week, and the closest game isn't exactly a hot ticket: Minnesota at Illinois.

For the first time all season, we Big Ten writers all picked the same winners. But will there be an upset? Can someone surprise in the Big Ten? Let's take a closer look at the matchups:

Noon

Minnesota (6-1) at Illinois (3-4), ESPNU: The Gophers are still fighting for respect, as they appear at No. 24 in the USA Today poll -- but they're still left out of the Associated Press' top 25. They've quietly put together a solid season, with their only loss coming against TCU, and running back David Cobb could be the most underrated player in the conference. Illinois coach Tim Beckman is fighting for his job, and he and his offensive coordinator can't even seem to agree on whether a two-quarterback system is best for the team. The Illini have a plethora of defensive problems, and they can't afford to have their offense stumble.

Maryland (5-2) at Wisconsin (4-2), BTN: Melvin Gordon is one of the most dynamic backs in all of college football, and the Terrapins are one of the worst rushing defenses in all of college football. That's not exactly a recipe for success for the Terps. That being said, Wisconsin's woes through the air have been well-documented, and it would be no surprise to see the Terps dare Wisconsin to throw. Randy Edsall needs to get his own house in order, too. Maryland has a lot of firepower on offense, but C.J. Brown needs to find more consistency for this team to hang with the Badgers. Backup Caleb Rowe is out for the season, so it's Brown or bust. And Brown has thrown three picks to zero touchdowns in the last two games.

Rutgers (5-2) at Nebraska (6-1), ESPN2: The Scarlet Knights just can't catch a break with their schedule. They were dismantled by Ohio State 56-17 on Saturday and they play Wisconsin next week. Rutgers was the surprise team of the conference in the first half of the season, but it will have to show something in this second half to retain that title. It won't be easy. Like the Buckeyes, Nebraska boasts a balanced offense -- and Ameer Abdullah is the best back the Knights have seen since ... well ... it's been years. With one Big Ten loss already, Nebraska can't afford a slip-up. But it might just have the most talented team, overall, in the West.

3:30 p.m.

Michigan (3-4) at Michigan State (6-1), ABC: Since 2008, this rivalry has basically been owned by the Spartans. Mark Dantonio's team has won five out of the last six, with the Wolverines winning only once in a 12-10 game in 2012. Michigan is coming off a bye week -- and actually won its last Big Ten game, against Penn State -- but the Spartans are on another level. If U-M can pull off this upset, maybe Brady Hoke has an outside chance to save his job and the Wolverines really have sparked a turnaround. If not, expect the same Michigan storyline that you've heard since Week 2.

8 p.m.

Ohio State (5-1) at Penn State (4-2), ABC: The Buckeyes have scored at least 50 points in four straight games, but they haven't faced a defense quite like Penn State's. On the flip side, the Nittany Lions haven't faced any offense resembling Ohio State's, either. The key to an upset here is two-fold: Penn State's weak offensive line must somehow keep one of the nation's best front fours at bay (unlikely), or Penn State's defense has to play out of its mind and force turnovers (more likely). Ohio State pounded Penn State 63-14 last season, and the Lions would like nothing more than to avenge the worst loss in program history since 1899 (a 64-5 loss to Duquesne). This game will act as a good measuring stick for both J.T. Barrett and the PSU defense.

Required reading
video
Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

The Michigan-Michigan State series resumes on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), and the Spartans have been dominant of late in winning five of the past six meetings. But will it continue? Today's Take Two topic is: Which program will be in better shape five years from now?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

The real answer here is we have no idea. Things can change quickly in college sports, and nothing is guaranteed. Just look at Florida and Texas.

It's particularly hard to predict with any accuracy what Michigan will look like in the future, because we don't know who will be the coaching the Wolverines in five months, much less years. Of course, the Maize and Blue have all the resources to bounce back quickly, assuming they hire the right man. But they've missed on that two times in a row now, right?

That's why I'll pick Michigan State. Rivalries tend to go in cycles, and the Spartans' ownership of their in-state opponent likely won't continue at this rate. But stability has been a key to the success of Mark Dantonio in East Lansing, as so many of his coaches have been with him since the beginning. That probably won't stay the case -- Pat Narduzzi has to get a head-coaching gig this winter, and he is likely to take some other Spartans assistants with him when he does -- but Dantonio will keep sticking with what works.

He just coached his 100th game with Michigan State and is only 58. Dantonio figures to still be leading the Spartans five years from now, and the program continues to get better in all areas. Even if Michigan finally maximizes its potential, Michigan State isn't going away. I'll stick with the sure thing.

Take 2: Dan Murphy

Five years is a long time in the cyclical world of college football. As far ahead as Michigan State currently sits in just about every metric of a successful program, there's no reason to believe Michigan can't catch up and possibly pass the Spartans in the future.

There's a good chance Michigan is closing in on a clean slate with its athletic department leadership. Strong relationships between the head coach, athletic director and the university's big wigs is an essential part of creating a consistent winner on the football field. If things in Ann Arbor continue down this current path, the Wolverines will get a chance to start building those bounds from scratch before the 2015 season.

The resources -- money, facility, support and athletic talent -- have always tilted toward Michigan in this rivalry. The ingredients for a better product are there, Michigan just hasn't been able to put them together during the past couple years.

Meanwhile, in East Lansing, Dantonio is battling the high expectations and attrition that come with success. His coaching staff has remained largely intact during the Spartans' rise, but that can't continue forever.

Five years from now, Dantonio will be a 63-year-old coach that might be dealing with a new staff for the first time in a long time. It's not a foregone conclusion that the Goliath he's built will shrink, but history certainly points to the possibility that Michigan will be in a good spot to catch up, which is probably a good thing for Wolverines' fans to keep reminding themselves as this season's meeting plays out on Saturday.
Everybody is breathlessly anticipating the huge Big Ten showdown between Ohio State and Michigan State on Nov. 8.

But first, the Spartans must make sure they don't overlook their last game before that matchup: Saturday's contest against Michigan.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
AJ Mast/Icon SportswireMark Dantonio and the Spartans have the upper hand in their rivalry with Michigan.
 That's a joke, of course. Michigan State will never take the Wolverines lightly, not unless there's some weird redrawing of the state's borders. This is a blood feud, one that helps the Spartans take measure of their own program and one that's talked about in office cubicles and family barbecues year round.

Michigan State, once infamously chided as "Little Brother" by former Michigan running back Mike Hart, will always approach this game with long knives drawn. Remember the "60 minutes of unnecessary roughness?"

"It's always really personal," linebacker Taiwan Jones told reporters on Tuesday. "Pretty much because we've always known every single game we play, we're never picked to be the favorites. It's always been about the school down the road instead of, I feel like, as much emphasis about us."

And yet ... you couldn't blame the Spartans if for maybe the first time ever vs. Michigan, the chip on their shoulders is more like a crumb. It's hard to fight for respect when you've so thoroughly stepped on your opponent's throats.

Michigan didn't even want to acknowledge the Paul Bunyan Trophy when it debuted in the early 1950s. Now, the Wolverines would love to see the little big man more often. Michigan State has won five of the past six meetings and is favored this week by 17 points, which is believed to be the largest spread on the Spartans' side in the rivalry's history.

Let's face it. This is a golden era to be rooting for the green and white.

Mark Dantonio's program is on a serious roll, having won 13 straight games against Big Ten opponents, building its College Football Playoff this year and still enjoying the glow from last season's Rose Bowl title. The only thing better than watching your team reach a crescendo is seeing your hated rival's drown. That's just what is happening at Michigan, as the Wolverines have wheezed to a 3-4 record while dealing with an angry fan base demanding heads on a pike.

Former Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins famously said he and his teammates could "walk the streets" of Michigan proudly the rest of their lives after they completed a rare four-year sweep of the Wolverines in 2011. Right now for Michigan State supporters, it must seem like the streets are paved in gold (or perhaps more appropriately bronze, given the team's mascot).

There are only two comparable periods to this one: the early 1950s, when Clarence "Biggie" Munn turned the Spartans into a national powerhouse, and the early-to-mid 1960s, when Michigan State won two national titles as Michigan struggled under Bump Elliott. Michigan State went 14-4-2 against the Wolverines from 1950 to 1969, including a 9-1-2 mark from '56 through '67. Meanwhile, Michigan finished with losing records six times between 1958 and '67.

"Until now, that had pretty much been Michigan State's period of success," said Dr. David A. Young, author of Arrogance and Scheming in the Big Ten: Michigan State's Quest for Membership and Michigan's Powerful Opposition. "Otherwise, Michigan has been dominant in this rivalry."

Some other comparisons can be made between the eras.

Munn, Young said, "was known as intense and highly ethical, so you could say he's a lot like Mark Dantonio." Elliott had strong Michigan ties -- he'd played tailback at the school -- and was a well-liked man who just couldn't get the Wolverines over the hump, Young said. Sound familiar?

Dantonio is undoubtedly achieving legendary status at Michigan State. On Saturday at Indiana, he coached his 100th game for the Spartans and gained win No. 70. Tyler O'Connor and Kurtis Drummond presented Dantonio with game balls after the 56-17 victory.

Dantonio has certainly raised expectations in East Lansing. It's not just about beating Michigan and winning a Big Ten title now. The Spartans have their eyes on a national title, and as such, the game against Ohio State (coming after a bye week), looms as the biggest of their season. Still, Dantonio calls the Michigan game "the most important game on the schedule."

"When you compete day in and day out with them -- and that's what we do on recruits, for fans, for everything, it ... carries over to every sport here," he said Tuesday. "That still is a game that we have to point to and say, 'Hey, this goes beyond our schedule. This goes beyond the future.'"

The balance of power in this rivalry will likely change again in the future. But for right now, Michigan fans must be green with envy.

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