NCF Nation: Mark Dantonio

B1G roundtable: Biggest surprise on the coaching job list?

February, 25, 2015
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What's the best coaching job in the country? ESPN.com has been ranking all the Power 5 coaching seats all this week.

Here at the Big Ten blog, we're getting involved by offering a look at coaching in the Big Ten. We'll offer our takes on the league's jobs.

Wednesday's roundtable topic: What's the biggest surprise among the Big Ten coaching job rankings?

Dan Murphy: Wisconsin at No. 24

The Badgers checked in at No. 24, which seems a little bit high given the recent turnover rate in Madison. In the past three years, Wisconsin has lost head coaches to Arkansas (No. 21) and Oregon State (No. 50). At least part of the reason for that attrition has been tougher recruiting requirements than most places and a smaller budget to go find players. The program has had plenty of recent success because of stability that goes beyond the head coach, but there are uphill battles to be fought when it comes to attracting talent to a Northern school with fewer resources than its competitors. If we're going to get nit-picky, I would drop the Badgers just a few spots.

Brian Bennett: Michigan State at No. 20

I don't disagree with this ranking, but it's still a bit jarring to see the Spartans as a top-20 job, one spot ahead of a traditional power like Nebraska and three spots ahead of Miami. I don't think there's any way we would have considered Michigan State one of the 20 best jobs even 10 years ago, so this speaks volumes about the job Mark Dantonio has done. His program has been rolling along, finishing in the top 5 of the final wire-service rankings in each of the past two years while winning a Rose Bowl and a Cotton Bowl and piling up at least 11 victories in four of the past five years. Facility upgrades have helped as well. Lots of people like to forecast a future drop-off for the Spartans, but Dantonio has built this into a program with staying power.

Mitch Sherman: Michigan at No. 14

Recent performance, of course, belies the notion that Michigan is a top-10 job, but history confirms it. Even after two straight losing Big Ten seasons -- the Wolverines have finished under .500 in league play, amazingly, five times in the past seven years -- this remains an elite job. Yes, it's his alma mater, but Jim Harbaugh wouldn't pass on the NFL for the 14th-best college opportunity. Really, there are six jobs in the SEC better than Michigan, the winningest program in college football history? No. With the right coach, it doesn't matter to Michigan that so much of the prep talent has migrated to the South. The Wolverines can recruit anywhere. Their brand is iconic, on par with Ohio State (No. 4 on this list). The Buckeyes deserve a higher spot than Michigan because of the current state of both programs, but U-M belongs in the top 10.
The ceaseless debate over conference strength waged here and in other forums ultimately centers on one question: How many teams in League X are capable of winning a national championship in Season Y?

The Big Ten entered the 2014 season with what many believed were two capable candidates: Michigan State and Ohio State. Although Wisconsin and Nebraska also appeared in the preseason Top 25 polls, the Badgers and Huskers were fringe contenders to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff.

It turned out both Michigan State and Ohio State were worthy of contender status. Ohio State won the national title; Michigan State won the Cotton Bowl and recorded its second consecutive top-5 finish.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer and Ezekiel Elliott
Darren Carroll for ESPNBig seasons by Ohio State and Michigan State brought respect to the Big Ten, but the conference needs more than two teams capable of winning the national championship.
No single accomplishment helps conference perception like a national title. After all the mud slung the Big Ten's way for the better part of a decade, Ohio State showed that the laughed-at league was, in fact, capable of having the last laugh. There is a residual from ending the season with the shiny trophy, and the Big Ten is enjoying one right now.

But how long does it last?

Some will say the good vibes ended today as colleague Mark Schlabach produced his latest way-too-early Top 25 for the 2015 season. Ohio State leads off at No. 1, and Michigan State appears at No. 7. Only one other Big Ten team makes the rundown: Wisconsin at No. 17.

Schlabach's Top 25 includes four SEC teams in the top-14 and eight overall. The Pac-12 has three teams in the top nine and five in the top 20. Even the ACC has more Top 25 teams (four) than the Big Ten.

Longtime Big Ten blog readers know how much I love to needle Schlabach for his regional, uh, preferences. The memory of him shivering outside Spartan Stadium on a balmy 42-degree October day a few years back warms my heart. Thin Southern blood, y'all.

But I have no problem with his rankings. The Big Ten remains a top-heavy league looking to build sustained depth. Schlabach's list isn't dramatically different from where the preseason polls had the Big Ten in August.

Ohio State should be No. 1 after its dominant Playoff performance and with possibly an even better team coming back. Michigan State's march into the national elite, along with the return of quarterback Connor Cook, merits a place in the top-8. Wisconsin's run of very good, not quite great, has withstood one shocking coaching change. It can withstand another, especially with a coach (Paul Chryst) who knows the landscape and can fix the program's primary hindrance (the passing game).

After those three teams, though, I can't make a strong case for more Big Ten Top 25 representation.

Minnesota is on the borderline. The defense once again should be solid, possibly more than solid. But the passing game remains a huge unknown, especially with tight end Maxx Williams gone. The Gophers have taken significant steps under Jerry Kill, but of their 16 wins the past two seasons, only five came against teams that finished with winning records. They also have yet to win a bowl game under Kill. There is more to prove.

This is the point where Nebraska fans have to catch their breath after screaming, "What about us?!" There are things to like about the Huskers' roster, as well as Mike Riley's ability to develop quarterbacks and wide receivers. But Nebraska lost its best offensive player (Ameer Abdullah) and best defender (Randy Gregory). Add in a coaching change and this isn't a Top 25 team -- yet.

Neither is Penn State, although if the Lions can figure out how to keep quarterback Christian Hackenberg upright, they could soon enter the national rankings.

So what does this mean for the Big Ten? The league is no longer the scourge of college football. Ohio State and Michigan State are considered elite programs by anyone who matters. But league-wide respect likely remains in short supply.

It goes back to the central question: How many Big Ten teams are capable of winning it all in a given season?

Ohio State should be capable every year under Urban Meyer. Michigan State should be in most years under Mark Dantonio. Wisconsin could rise to that level, but hasn't quite gotten there in recent years. Penn State and Nebraska? History is on their side and both programs are recruiting well, but both must clear some hurdles. Kirk Ferentz's Iowa teams have shown elite-level capability at times, but the program needs to regain momentum.

Few doubt Michigan's capability as a championship contender. The history and resources are there, and Michigan seemingly has the the coach in Jim Harbaugh to facilitate a rise. But the Wolverines haven't been a national player since the 2006 season. Opposing coaches are conflicted about how much talent is in the program right now. Is Michigan fast-track-able? We'll soon find out.

TCU showed last season that a team nowhere near the Playoff radar in August can be in the mix for a spot in early December. Does the Big Ten have such a team in 2015?

Winning a national title was huge for this league, but the macro challenge hasn't changed. The Big Ten needs more Playoff-worthy depth so the league isn't pinning its hopes on one or two teams every year. The SEC pulled off its historic run with four different championship teams, and several others with win-it-all capability.

An Ohio State title defense in 2015 will resonate much more for the Buckeyes than the Big Ten. Ohio State fans might disagree, but the Big Ten's path to national respect isn't simply the I-270 "Outerbelt" that circles Columbus.

The route must include other cities in other states and ultimately lead back to Glendale, Arizona, where college football's next national champion will be crowned.
Michigan State’s Cotton Bowl win last month was the program’s first game in Texas in five years. The program has plans to strengthen its ties to the Lone Star State moving forward.

The Spartans' recent success, especially during bowl season, has helped open recruiting doors outside the Midwest. Three high school seniors from Texas are expected to sign letters of intent Wednesday to play for Michigan State. Another, four-star quarterback Brian Lewerke, is coming from Arizona. Prior to this year’s cycle the only Texan to sign during coach Mark Dantonio’s tenure at Michigan State was quarterback Nick Foles, who headed south to Arizona after his freshman season.

Texas is one the nation’s three most reliable exporters of football talent along with Florida and California. Michigan State has taken a more regional approach under Dantonio, filling its roster with overlooked overachievers en route to 42 wins in the past four years. The program is hoping to capitalize on its recent success on the field by expanding that footprint.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
AJ Mast/Icon SportswireMark Dantonio and the Spartans are expected to get three high school seniors from Texas to sign letters of intent Wednesday.
"I think we’ve finally reached that point where people have seen the product several years in a row," said assistant coach Terry Samuel, a Houston native. "You win four bowl games in a row, and the high school coaches start to get really receptive to what you’re doing."

Samuel said he’s been planting seeds in Texas since he joined the Spartans staff four years ago. The Rose Bowl win a year ago was a turning point for gaining some traction among high school players in the state.

Before that 13-1 season, Samuel said, Texas prospects were interested but would hold out for offers from in-state powers like the Longhorns and Texas A&M. By the time some of those players were ready to commit to Michigan State, their spots had been filled.

"Now they’re just jumping in. That’s the difference," Samuel said. "That’s the difference the exposure makes. Kids are seeing it’s a top 10 program instead of a top 20."

All four of the Texas and Southwest recruits expected to sign this year committed to the Spartans before the end of the 2014 regular season. Three of the four -- Lewerke, Josh Butler and Tyler Higby -- were on board before summer training camp began.

"They’ve definitely built their brand over the past few years," said Jeff Neill, who coached Butler at West Mesquite High School.

Neill has worked at West Mesquite for the past 10 years. His program produces three or four Div. I prospects each year, and this is the first time he’s seen Michigan State make a run at any of them. Neill said the Spartans no longer need to introduce themselves to most Texas football fans. Their growing reputation, along with their defensive philosophy (Butler is a cornerback) and their approach in recruiting attracted Butler.

Dana Zupke, who coached Lewerke at Pinnacle High in Phoenix, said Michigan State’s staff also made a good first impression in his area this season.

"They’ve been incredible, just awesome guys that are really successful and down to earth," he said. "Brian is a very high character guy and that definitely resonated. Their staff and the vibe he got at Michigan State really resonated with Brian."

Samuel said seeking players with the personality and character that fit Michigan State is still a top priority. The Spartans are still looking for the same fish, just trying to search in a larger pond.

The wider net is still in experimental stage. Samuel said the 2015 season will be the first time the staff gets to see how recruits from an expanded recruiting area fit in on the field. If all goes well, he said Michigan State plans to increase its presence on the recruiting trail outside of the Midwest. The addition of new defensive assistant Mark Snyder, who spent the past three years at Texas A&M, should help open more doors in Texas.

With the influx of new aggressive coaches in the Big Ten -- from Urban Meyer to James Franklin to Jim Harbaugh -- competition for the best players in Michigan and Ohio will continue to increase. Michigan State has always carved its niche by finding a different type of athlete to fill its roster, but if the Spartans want to continue competing for conference titles and top-10 finishes, they will need to continue to upgrade their talent. Looking beyond the Midwest can be an important part of that process.

Overreacting in the Big Ten

January, 15, 2015
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We live in an instant reaction society, in which every development is immediately dissected and analyzed for all it's worth. Often, in this hyperbolic chamber, our first reactions turn out to be overreactions.

That's especially true in football, where a small number of games combines with outsized interest to make everything seem a little more monumental than it probably is. Here are some of the top overreactions from the Big Ten in the 2014 season:

Aug. 19: Ohio State is doomed without Braxton Miller!

What happened: Two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year Miller was ruled out for the season due to a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.

Overreaction: People began heaping dirt on the Buckeyes' season. Overnight, Ohio State went from league favorite to giant question mark, especially as it turned to a virtually unknown redshirt freshman quarterback with no experience. The entire Big Ten would suffer as a result too.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Khris Hale/Icon SportswireAs with Braxton Miller before him, Ohio State's demise was predicted following an injury to J.T. Barrett.
Reality: J.T. Barrett finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting and won the league's Big Ten quarterback of the year award while breaking a pile of school records. The Buckeyes did not lose a Big Ten game and merely won the national title.

Sept. 6: The Big Ten's playoff hopes are dead!

What happened: Michigan State lost by 19 points at Oregon. Ohio State lost at home by two touchdowns to Virginia Tech. Michigan got embarrassed at Notre Dame.

Overreaction: The Week 2 primetime meltdown ended the playoff possibilities for the Big Ten. The league wouldn't have enough opportunities to change public perception, and even with 10 games left in the regular season, the chance of a Big Ten team in the four-team field was slim.

Reality: The negativity was understandable, given the blowout nature of the losses and the conference's recent history in big games. Heck, many of us here in this blog thought the Big Ten was toast, save for lone optimist Austin Ward. But the losses came early enough in the season for the league to bounce back, and things happened elsewhere to help out the Big Ten's cause. Except for Michigan. That was a lost cause.

Nov. 8: Michigan State's time is over!

What happened: Ohio State ran all over the Spartans 49-37 in a showdown in East Lansing and handed Michigan State its second double-digit loss of the year.

Overreaction: The Spartans' Rose Bowl championship and Big Ten title from the season before were a one-year wonder. The downturn was beginning for Mark Dantonio's program.

Reality: Those two losses don't look so bad in retrospect, as they came to the two teams that played for the national title. The Spartans didn't lose to anyone else and beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl to cement a top-5 finish in back-to-back years for the first time since the mid-1960s. Only a handful of teams have had as much success the past five years as Michigan State, which is in great shape to maintain its newfound elite status.

Nov. 29: Ohio State is doomed without J.T. Barrett!

What happened: Barrett fractured his ankle in the season finale against Michigan, which left him unavailable for the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin or any postseason game.

Overreaction: If the Miller injury didn't kill Ohio State's chances, then surely this one did. There was no way the Buckeyes could turn to third-string quarterback Cardale Jones and get him ready in one week for Wisconsin's fearsome defense. The Buckeyes were made an underdog in the Big Ten championship game.

Reality: Jones threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns in a 59-0 stomping of the Badgers. He'd go on to defeat Alabama and Oregon in his next two starts.

By now, you'd think we'd know not to doubt Meyer's ability to develop quarterbacks. And given those silly jumps to conclusions, we'll all have learned our lessons about overreacting to news in 2015, right?

Highly doubtful. Here are a a few likely overreactions you'll see this season:

Ohio State's quarterback logjam will be a distraction! Sure, if everybody stays in place, the Buckeyes will have a stuffed stable of quarterbacks, with Miller, Barrett and Jones. But remember that two of them are currently injured, they all love the school, and nothing is guaranteed. Plus, Meyer and his staff are smart enough to figure it out.

Jim Harbaugh's arrival means the return of the Big 2 with Michigan and Ohio State! Yeah, remember when Brady Hoke's early success portended an era in which Michigan and Ohio State would leave the rest of the league behind? Harbaugh will be great, but he's going to need some time to get the Wolverines fixed. Although the Buckeyes are zooming onward and upward, Michigan State and Wisconsin are established, excellent programs, and others such as Nebraska, Penn State and Minnesota aren't far behind. Speaking of the Gophers ...

Minnesota was a fluke! Jerry Kill's team didn't get much credit at all for its eight-win season in 2013 and probably won't be valued highly after an even more impressive eight-win team in 2014. People who just look at stats and returning starters might not be impressed by the Gophers and their sometimes low-wattage offense. But this team is legit and only going to get better under Kill and his staff.

Michigan State's 2014 season will be remembered most for the way it ended: a furious fourth-quarter comeback against Baylor in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, giving the Spartans a signature win.

But the Baylor triumph, combined with the results of the College Football Playoff semifinals that took place later on Jan. 1, provided Michigan State another distinction. No team in college football has better losses than the Spartans, whose only two setbacks came against the teams that meet Monday for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T.

"It's crazy how things work out," Spartans safety Kurtis Drummond said, "that your two losses come to national title contenders."

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota, Kurtis Drummond
Chris Pietsch/Associated PressMarcus Mariota kept the Spartans off-balance with both his legs and his arm.
MSU fell Sept. 6 at Oregon and Nov. 8 against Ohio State at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans led both games for stretches before stumbling midway through. They piled up yards in both contests -- 466 against Oregon, 536 against Ohio State -- but couldn't slow down their opponents' potent offenses, which combined for 95 points and 1,059 yards against a typically formidable Spartans defense.

The Spartans aren't offering title game predictions, but they weighed in on several elements of the mega matchup.

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota

Michigan State faced only half of Monday's quarterback pairing, as Ohio State's J.T. Barrett was still healthy for the game in East Lansing, Michigan. Mariota had 318 pass yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and 42 rush yards in Oregon's Week 2 win against the Spartans.

"I remember his composure and his confidence," Drummond said. "He's not a guy who's going to make the first guy miss and just take off running. He can do that, but he's a guy who can still throw the ball downfield."

Mariota made the game's defining play with his feet, and then his arm. Michigan State led 27-18 in the third quarter and appeared to have sacked Mariota on third-and-long, but the Oregon star escaped several would-be tacklers before shoveling the ball to Royce Freeman for a first down.

Oregon converted another third down moments later and reached the end zone, sparking a 28-0 run to end the game.

"He's extremely gifted in terms of riding the fake-out," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "You can see a couple times in the film where our guys are sitting right there and eyes on the ball, eyes on him and we lose him. And then, in the pocket getting out of problems, he's a fast guy, he's extremely elusive."

The offenses

Both offenses fall under the spread canopy and have similarities in personnel and operation.

For years, Oregon's pace has staggered opposing defenses, especially when the Ducks get rolling. They lead the FBS this season in scoring percentage after the initial first down is gained, scoring on 66.2 percent of such possessions. Dantonio said Ohio State doesn't operate as quickly as it did with Braxton Miller at quarterback, but a tempo element remains.

"They both create run-pass conflicts," Dantonio said. "They both have coaches that are on the cutting edge of what we see now as offensive football."

The skill-position contingents are similar: fast and physical backs such as Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott and Oregon's Freeman, big-play receivers such as Oregon's Darren Carrington and Devon Allen and Ohio State's Devin Smith and Michael Thomas. Oregon has six players with at least 20 receptions who average more than 13 yards per reception; Ohio State has four.

"Oregon has guys who ran track, Ohio State has guys who ran track," Drummond said. "They both have explosive-type players out there on the edges, guys who can make plays on the ball."

One difference, Drummond noted, is that Ohio State lines up its tight ends closer to the line of scrimmage. The Buckeyes' Jeff Heuerman is a strong blocker with the ability to catch passes. Oregon lost standout tight end Pharaoh Brown to a season-ending leg injury in November.

The defenses

There are more differences in scheme -- Oregon runs a 3-4, Ohio State a 4-3 -- and personnel with these less distinguished units. Oregon's height at defensive end with Arik Armstead (6-foot-8) and DeForest Buckner (6-foot-7) stood out to both Dantonio and MSU offensive coordinator Dave Warner.

Ohio State isn't quite as tall up front but boasts power inside with tackles Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington.

"That’s going to be a test for both offenses, to try and establish the run game," Warner said. "They've both got some run-stoppers up front."

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesOhio State forced Connor Cook and Michigan State to pass more than they otherwise would have liked.
Offensive balance was among Michigan State's top goals entering both games, but the Spartans became pass-heavy in both contests, especially as they fell behind in the second half.

The Ducks' defensive backs also caught Warner's attention. Oregon safety Erick Dargan had the first of his team-leading seven interceptions against the Spartans.

"Those guys are playmakers, so you've got to be pretty smart as far as how you attack them in the pass game," Warner said. "We had a little bit of success but screwed up there toward the third and fourth quarter. Those guys don't let you get away with many mistakes."

Keys to the game

The offensive firepower on both sides has many anticipating a shootout. It's why Warner thinks conversion rates -- third downs and touchdowns -- will be so important.

Michigan State's inability to convert a red zone opportunity late in the first half against Ohio State -- a holding penalty nullified a touchdown run and the Spartans subsequently missed a short field goal attempt -- turned the momentum and MSU never recovered. Ohio State and Oregon rank third and fourth nationally in third-down conversions, so the team that better moves the chains will have a significant edge. Ohio State is better (20th nationally, 35 percent conversions) at preventing third-down conversions than Oregon (60th, 39.5 percent).

"Third downs become very critical, whether it’s third-and-short or third-and-long," Warner said. "When you get in the red zone, you want to get touchdowns, not field goals. Those things become even more important when you're going against a high-powered offense."

Dantonio expects turnovers and special teams to loom large. Oregon used three third-quarter takeaways against Florida State to pull away from the Seminoles. Ohio State committed two early turnovers against Alabama but rallied to win the turnover margin 3-2.

Oregon leads the nation in turnover margin (plus-20), while Ohio State is tied for 15th (plus-10).

"This isn't a game," Drummond said, "where it's going to be easy to win beating yourselves."
Three years ago, I sat in Mark Dantonio’s office and asked him about his least-favorite subject.

Brady Hoke had just won 11 games and the Sugar Bowl in his first year at Michigan, and the Wolverines were the toast of recruiting service rankings. Many people wondered if Hoke’s instant success would pierce Michigan State’s balloon (Hey, cut us all a break. Those were simpler times and we were naïve.)

Dantonio listed off all his achievements with the Spartans, including their recent run of dominance over Michigan, and with that wry smirk of his, turned the question back on me. “So where’s the threat?” he asked.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsMark Dantonio has led Michigan State to at least 11 victories in four of the past five seasons.
He later tried to distance himself from that quote a bit. But his point had not only been made, it was an unimpeachable one. Michigan State, as it turned out, had no reason to worry about Hoke’s short reign with the Maize and Blue, and the Spartans even grew stronger during it.

So let’s all agree not to make the same mistake again, even as more dangerous existential threats appear to be rising against Michigan State. Dantonio has built a program that can withstand just about any menace, real or imagined.

“We're not fading away,” Dantonio said Tuesday. “We're getting better as we move forward. And the challenges are getting bigger.”

Pause and appreciate what the Spartans have accomplished in recent years. They just finished an 11-2 season that concluded with a 42-41 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic win over No. 5 Baylor. Their only two losses of the season came against the two teams that will play for the national championship next Monday, Oregon and Ohio State. They should finish no lower than No. 6 in the final polls.

Michigan State is 24-3 in the past two years, having won the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl last season. It’s the only program to have won a BCS game last season and a New Year’s Six bowl this year. No team has represented the Big Ten better in bowls of late, as the Spartans have beaten Georgia (2011 season), TCU (2012), Stanford (2013) and now Baylor. They have won at least 11 games in four of the past five years.

“I think we've developed continuity here, not just in what we're doing but in how we're doing it and in terms of productivity, in terms of wins,” Dantonio said. “So I think we can be in the national conversation. I think we're a football team that can and will play up.”

Yet there remains, in some quarters, a fear that outside forces may cause things to slow down in East Lansing.

Ohio State, whose win at Spartan Stadium on Nov. 8 kept Michigan State from repeating as Big Ten champs, is surging forward as a national power and is still scarily young. Jim Harbaugh’s hiring at Michigan portends the Wolverines’ return to contender status (for real this time). The East Division is only going to get tougher, especially if James Franklin keeps recruiting like a madman at Penn State.

Meanwhile, Dantonio loses the architect of his ferocious defenses and longtime collaborator Pat Narduzzi, who finally got his head coaching opportunity with Pittsburgh. Several of this year’s top contributors -- Big Ten receiver of the year Tony Lippett, record-breaking running back Jeremy Langford, Big Ten defensive back of the year Kurtis Drummond, cornerback and potential first-round NFL pick Trae Waynes, four-year starting defensive end Marcus Rush -- are leaving, and star defensive end Shilique Calhoun still might join them. The Spartans’ 2015 schedule won’t be easy, either, as they have to go to Ohio State and get a return date from Oregon in Week 2.

I admit to having some concerns about the immediate future of Michigan State when Baylor built a 20-point lead in the third quarter on New Year’s Day. But then the Spartans did what they always do nowadays: they refused to wither. Resilience has been the strength of this program under Dantonio.

Ohio State isn’t going to go away, but the truth is that Michigan and Penn State are chasing the Spartans, not the other way around. Dantonio is replacing Narduzzi with two other longtime assistants in Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel, and he’s betting that the staff continuity that has served him so well will continue paying off. He's probably right, because Barnett and Tressel are rising stars in the coaching world.

"It's time for a lot of people to grow," Dantonio said, "and this is the next step in growth process."

Harbaugh will surely increase the in-state competition, but Hoke was already recruiting at a high level, at least according to the rankings. Michigan State has shown an uncanny ability to evaluate and select the players that best fit its system and then develop them. Look at Waynes, who played on the same Wisconsin high school team as Melvin Gordon, and yet only the Spartans truly saw the player he could become. Or Jack Conklin, who had no other Division I offers but might be the best left tackle in the Big Ten.

Still, hardly a public appearance has gone by the past couple of weeks where Dantonio wasn’t asked about Harbaugh, including Tuesday’s season wrap up session.

“Coach Harbaugh is an excellent coach,” Dantonio said, no doubt and understandably irked by another Michigan question. “He's got a tremendous track record -- we all understand that. It will be the next challenge for us.”

The threats against Michigan State appear to be mounting. But don't forget that Dantonio and his Spartans have built a powerhouse that can take on all comers.
Most see New Year's Day as a new beginning, a clean slate, a time where the present decleats the past like Tony Lippett decleated poor Chris Callahan in the Cotton Bowl (it's OK, the Baylor kicker is alive). Big Ten fans are no different, but for them, New Year's Day had become Groundhog Day -- and not in a good way.

Remember when Bill Murray, in the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day," kept finding creative ways to kill himself because he knew he'd have another chance in the morning? My favorite: when Phil (the man) kidnaps Phil (the groundhog) in a pickup truck and drives into a quarry. The day's master of ceremonies, Buster, tells the cop who's trying to stop him: "If you gotta shoot, aim high. I don't wanna hit the groundhog."

Words to live by.

[+] EnlargeOhio State celebration
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesOhio State's victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl capped a banner New Year's Day for the Big Ten.
As Phil (the man) said: "I've killed myself so many times, I don't even exist anymore."

That had been the Big Ten on New Year's Day -- different and occasionally entertaining methods of failure ending with the same morbid result, followed by the familiar onslaught of national criticism. If Big Ten fans wanted to spend Jan. 1 away from televisions, computers, cell phones and stadiums just to escape the inevitable, who could blame them?

New Year's Day 2011 is one that will live in Big Ten infamy, as the league went 0-5 in bowls. Things didn't improve much, as the Big Ten went 4-10 on the next three New Year's days. (The 2012 games were played on Jan. 2 because of the NFL playoffs.)

Most Big Ten fans can't stand the way the league clusters most of its major bowl games on New Year's Day -- except for the Rose Bowl, of course. Their complaint makes sense, as it's hard to track all of the teams at once. The method becomes more maddening when every Big Ten team loses, turning New Year's Day into a national showcase of Big Ten ineptitude.

The conference appeared headed toward another New Year's downer last week. Wisconsin saw a late lead disappear against Auburn, Michigan State was getting pummeled by Baylor and Minnesota couldn't get out of its own way against Missouri. Ohio State was playing Alabama in a College Football Playoff semifinal that night at the Allstate Sugar Bowl, but the Buckeyes, starting a third-string quarterback against the mighty Tide defense, were a long shot to advance.

Another Big Ten New Year's oh-fer seemed imminent, complete with another reminder from the SEC that the Big Ten wasn't up to snuff with the top conferences. It's OK if you stopped watching.

But then quarterback Joel Stave got hot and Wisconsin sent the Outback Bowl to overtime, where it prevailed 34-31. Michigan State mounted one of the wildest comebacks in bowl history, erasing a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 42-41.

Hours later, Ohio State beat Bama, piling up 42 points and 537 yards in a definitive victory that, despite ending just after midnight ET, still counts as part of the Big Ten's New Year's haul.

And what a haul it was. New Year's Day 2015 marked the Big Ten's best day in 4,382 days -- specifically, since Jan. 3, 2003, when Ohio State beat Miami to win the league's most recent national championship and its only title in the BCS era. The logjam of games fans gripe about suddenly wasn't so annoying.

Ohio State's victory carried the day because of who it came against and where it took place. Ultimately, the Big Ten needs a team to win a national title, but the Buckeyes' win against what most consider the nation's premier program in SEC territory will reverberate, regardless of what they do against Oregon a week from now.

Fairly or not, Wisconsin had become the epitome of Big Ten big-game futility in recent years. The Badgers dropped three straight Rose Bowls and last year's Capital One Bowl. They blew a big lead against LSU in this season's opener, and with an assist from Pac-12 officials, stumbled last fall at Arizona State. Badgers fans had seen the movie before, the one with underwhelming quarterback play and not quite enough speed, and braced for the familiar ending. But this time, Wisconsin came through to beat a talented Auburn squad.

A 10-win season -- Michigan State's fourth in the past five seasons -- is nothing to sneeze at, but the Spartans needed a signature victory to stamp the 2014 campaign as another success. They fell short of their preseason goals but recorded their team-record fourth consecutive bowl win. Now that Jim Harbaugh is at Michigan, you'll hear a lot about how the Big Two -- Michigan and Ohio State -- will lord over the league again. It's a lazy theory. Mark Dantonio and his Spartans aren't going anywhere, as the bowl win reminded everyone.

New Year's Day gave the league something it rarely has this time of year: momentum. The national media will never toast the Big Ten the way it does the SEC, but credit is being doled out, even from some reluctant sources.

There's also talk about the Big Ten's bright future, and rightfully so.

Regardless of what happens Jan. 12 at Jerry World, Ohio State should have a better team this coming season. Love him or hate him, Urban Meyer is the best thing that happened to the Big Ten.

Michigan State returns quarterback Connor Cook, a proven winner, and several other key pieces. Wisconsin rolls on with a new coach (Paul Chryst) who can fix an old problem (inconsistent quarterback play). Michigan hired the perfect coach to fast-track its comeback. Penn State, another Big Ten bowl winner, will improve as James Franklin injects more talent and depth into the roster.

Despite its bowl loss, Minnesota is ascending under Jerry Kill. If new Nebraska coach Mike Riley maximizes the talent on his roster, the Big Ten will have another team in the national discussion. The Big Ten's much-panned new additions, Rutgers and Maryland, don't look so bad after Year 1. Even Indiana got some good news on New Year's Day, as UAB standout running back Jordan Howard announced he would transfer to IU.

Groundhog Day is over for the Big Ten and its fans.

After seemingly a decade of cold, harsh, unrelenting winter, the sun is out in the heartland.

No American football conglomerate reveres its history and tradition like the Big Ten. No institution within the Big Ten reveres its history and tradition like Michigan.

Some would call Michigan the most storied program in the most storied league. Others would call Michigan the biggest has-been program in the ultimate has-been league. Both positions can be supported and justified (although the latter carries more weight in recent years).

Michigan's hiring of Jim Harbaugh pleases both camps.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
AP Images/Tony AvelarMichigan's hiring of Jim Harbaugh not only adds a big name to the Wolverines' program, but the Big Ten becomes a conference with some coaching clout.
Harbaugh is a nod to the past -- an old-school-ish, khakis-wearing coach who played for Bo Schembechler at Michigan, spent part of his childhood in the shadows of the Big House and employs manball schemes that warm the hearts of Wolverines fans longing for times gone by.

He also has had all his coaching success in the modern environment, from the University of San Diego to Stanford to the San Francisco 49ers. As a coach, Harbaugh isn't stuck in the past. He knows how to win right now, and he seemingly has come to the realization that his not-for-everybody style might be more effective in the college game.

Harbaugh will move Michigan forward, toward its first Big Ten championship since 2004 and possibly its first national championship since 1997.

This is big, not just for Michigan but for the Big Ten. There are no easy fixes for what ails this conference, but the quickest path is for the great programs with great history and great resources to be great again. Fans of teams like Michigan State and Wisconsin hate that argument, but it's impossible to deny that the Big Ten's perception struggles have directly coincided with Michigan's downturn. Michigan has been one of the Big Ten's biggest problems, if not its biggest.

There's no reason the Big Ten can't have it all: Michigan surging and other programs, like Michigan State and Wisconsin, performing at championship levels. Ultimately, the league needs more teams capable of competing for the national championship.

Harbaugh gives Michigan that capability again.

There are other Big Ten benefits to Harbaugh's arrival, starting with The Game. Since the epic No. 1 vs. No. 2 clash in 2006 -- the last time the Big Ten truly owned the national spotlight -- how often has the Ohio State-Michigan game been relevant? How often has it been the most meaningful Big Ten game on the final regular-season Saturday? Harbaugh's presence gives The Game, to borrow an Ohio State term, some #Juice.

There will never be another Woody and Bo, but this might be as close as it'll ever be. Harbaugh and Urban Meyer are rock-star coaches with big personalities, recruiting clout and tremendous track records. Unusual circumstances played into both coaching takeovers -- Meyer's year away from coaching, Harbaugh's falling out with the 49ers despite recent success -- but the timing couldn't have been better for both Ohio State and Michigan. They'll get after it in recruiting and in games. It will be glorious.

The Harbaugh hire also adds to the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, which the Spartans have dominated during Mark Dantonio's tenure. Dantonio has masterfully played up the Michigan game, while the Wolverines' painstaking response hasn't been up to par. Harbaugh should change that. This series becomes much more fun.

And there's more. After several years of uninspiring coaching hires, the Big Ten has added Harbaugh, Meyer and Penn State's James Franklin in recent years. Add in Dantonio and the Big Ten's East Division has a coaching lineup that pops nationally, much like the SEC's and Pac-12's.

Michigan's all-in pitch to land Harbaugh also sends a signal to the rest of the conference. One concern current and former Big Ten coaches raised earlier this season was whether the league truly wanted to be great.

From Inside Access:
A former coach added that some Big Ten schools are "too politically correct" when it comes to priorities and spending.

"There's some people on campus who are saying, wait a second, is this necessary?" another former Big Ten coach said. "Well, yes it is if you want to win championships."

Michigan answered that question in its ultra-aggressive approach with Harbaugh. Programs like Purdue, Illinois, Indiana and Northwestern can't spend like Michigan spends, but they have to stretch themselves to keep up. They have to ask themselves: Are we doing all we can to max out?

Michigan fans have their answer. This is a big-boy move by a big-boy program fed up with being bullied on the playground. That Michigan pulled this off with an interim athletic director (Jim Hackett) and a new president (Mark Schlissel) is significant. Hackett wisely eliminated the Michigan Man term and then landed the man Michigan needed, not because of his ties to the program's past but because of what he can do for the program's future.

Harbaugh will maintain what Brady Hoke did on the recruiting trail and succeed where Hoke failed in player development. He will celebrate Michigan's past like Hoke did, and actually build on it.

After an extended period of underachievement like Michigan has endured, nobody outside the base cares what the program used to be. It's about what the program is, and where the program is going.

This is Michigan. Sounds a lot better with Jim Harbaugh at the helm.
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.

Big Ten backs deliver historic season

November, 24, 2014
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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.

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