NCF Nation: Mark Dantonio

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 9

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
10:00
AM ET
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
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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.

Ben Affleck to Spartans: 'I'm Batman'

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
5:47
PM ET
Ben Affleck is spending his autumn in Michigan shooting "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," but the two-time Academy Award winner found time to talk to the Spartans.

According to The Detroit News, Affleck was working out in the team's weight room when Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio invited him out to speak to the team ahead of Michigan State's tilt with Indiana on Saturday. He opened his remarks by deadpanning, "I'm Batman."

The film's crew is ostensibly on campus to film scenes at the angular and intimidating art museum on the north side of MSU's campus, which has closed for the week for a "private function."

"Batman v Superman" is slated to hit theaters March 25, 2016.

Affleck is not the first major movie star to address a big-name team this year. Earlier this month, Matthew McConaughey gave his beloved Texas Longhorns a very McConaughey pep talk.

No word on whether anyone gave Affleck trouble for wearing a blue shirt in East Lansing.
Five observations from an interesting Saturday in the Big Ten:

1. Gophers are contenders: The wins aren’t usually pretty, but it doesn’t take any style points to win a conference championship. Offensive limitations certainly cut down on Minnesota’s margin for error every week, but with running back David Cobb pounding away at teams and a stout defense, the victories are starting to pile up for coach Jerry Kill, who appears to have a legitimate contender on his hands. Knocking off resurgent Northwestern 24-17 puts the Gophers on top of the West Division with manageable games on deck against Purdue and Illinois, which could allow them to build momentum ahead of a tough closing stretch in November. By the end of October, there might not be a team in better position in the wide-open West.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota's David Cobb
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesDavid Cobb rushed 30 times for 97 yards, helping Minnesota to a 2-0 record in the Big Ten.
2. Ferentz, Hawkeyes alive and well: Meet the new Kirk Ferentz, fearless riverboat gambler in do-or-die, fourth-and-goal situations and manager of a two-quarterback system. Indiana’s suspect defense might have made it easier for Ferentz to get aggressive just before halftime Saturday, and the Hawkeyes might have given the scoreboard a workout regardless of who was taking the snaps. But after some ugly play in September, Iowa appears to be finding an identity and gaining confidence at the right time now that Big Ten play has arrived. Iowa has taken care of business in both league games so far, including Saturday's 45-29 win over the Hoosiers, and like Minnesota, that alone makes it a threat in the unpredictable West.

3. Uphill battle ahead of Hackenberg, Nittany Lions: The talent is still plain to see at times, but Christian Hackenberg's development might be getting stunted by Penn State’s anemic offensive line. The sophomore looks like he’s preparing to get hit every time he takes a snap, and that’s leading to some horrible decisions and inaccurate passes that are catching up with the Nittany Lions after their fast start under James Franklin. Without Hackenberg’s ill-advised attempt under pressure that was picked off in the second half on Saturday night, Michigan’s toothless offense probably would have never been in position to kick a game-tying field goal, and his intentional grounding on Penn State’s final drive clinched the 18-13 defeat. Devin Gardner is in a similar situation behind Michigan’s suspect offensive line, and both guys should prepare to take a lot more punishment over the next few weeks.

4. Spartans still missing a complete effort: Purdue has noticeably improved and deserves credit for the strides it has made in coach Darrell Hazell’s second season with the program. But there’s still no real excuse for the reigning Big Ten champions and a team aiming to get back in the College Football Playoff conversation to lose concentration and allow opponents to climb back into games down the stretch the way Michigan State did for the second week in a row. The Spartans claimed to have learned a lesson after nearly giving away a win over Nebraska last week, but it doesn’t appear to have sunk in yet following a 45-31 win over the Boilermakers. Even Mark Dantonio will have to accept some blame this time after his head-scratching decision to fake a punt deep in his own territory in the fourth quarter.

5. Defenses sinking Illinois, Indiana: Both programs are still more than capable of scoring points, even with injuries limiting their quarterbacks. But the Illini and Hoosiers just aren’t going anywhere with such porous defenses continuing to undermine any efforts on the other side of the ball. Illinois showed some fight for coach Tim Beckman during a 38-28 loss, but its tackling was shoddy far more often than not and it couldn’t slow down even a one-dimensional Wisconsin offense that is barely a threat to pass at all. And an Iowa team that hadn’t scored more than 24 points in a game all season surpassed that total by the end of the first quarter, once again showing how far the Hoosiers have to go defensively if they’re going to turn things around and get back to a bowl game.
Mark Dantonio sounded far more satisfied than his players did in Spartan Stadium’s new media room Saturday night. As he should, Michigan State’s 27-22 defeat of previously undefeated Nebraska and its narrow escape from total collapse in the fourth quarter were both reasons for the head coach to smile.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and Michigan State almost let one slip away against Nebraska on Saturday.
 Not only did Dantonio keep his team in the Big Ten driver’s seat with an 11th straight win in conference play, but he also had the opportunity to walk into a locker room humbled in victory and deliver an important message. Michigan State didn't close well against the Cornhuskers.

“As soon as we got in the locker room, Coach D was in there talking to us about it,” said freshman safety Montae Nicholson, who made his first career start Saturday. “From here on out, we’ll be finishing a lot better.”

The current state of affairs in East Lansing is such that after eviscerating one of the country’s top rushing attacks and knocking off the last remaining unbeaten team in the Big Ten, the postgame discussion focused on a late breakdown and a lackluster performance from the student body in the stands. The Spartans expect to win. On Saturday, they say they learned not to take winning for granted.

Michigan State players admitted they may have started to celebrate a bit too early against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers scored 19 unanswered points in the game’s final 13 minutes and came within a couple feet of connecting on what would have been a go-ahead touchdown pass on their final drive.

The comeback, though incomplete, ended the Spartans’ streak of 10 consecutive Big Ten wins by at least 10 points. The streak looked safely intact late in the third quarter when wide receiver Tony Lippett rushed for 32 untouched yards on a reverse to give his team a 27-3 lead. The Spartans were fighting human nature to keep from coasting across the finish line at that point.

“It is difficult because everybody on the sideline is hype,” senior linebacker Taiwan Jones said. “Everybody’s basically saying we got the game won. We can’t do that. We have to take a step back and take it one play at a time and play each play to the best of our ability.”

This isn’t about style points. The playoff selection committee should be able to do a better job than the BCS computers did of separating the version of Michigan State that dominated Nebraska through three quarters from the cruise-control version that held on in the fourth. Pollsters didn’t penalize the Spartans for the final score. Alabama is the only one-loss team ranked higher in this week’s AP Top 25.

The concern for Dantonio and company is that one game will slip away in the future if his team gets too cozy with a lead. Nebraska was 37 yards from grand larceny Saturday night. The Spartans can’t afford another loss if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Dantonio said the fourth-quarter breakdown was “uncharacteristic” of his team. He disagreed that there was a pattern to connect to the 9-point lead his team surrendered in its loss to Oregon earlier in the year. Different circumstances, he said. No one on his sideline thought a third-quarter lead against the explosive Ducks was safe.

Saturday was different. All three phases of the game missed opportunities to seal a win. An apparent pick-six slipped through the hands of veteran safety Kurtis Drummond on defense. The punting unit gave up 95 yards in the fourth quarter, including a 62-yard score. On offense, play-calling from the coaches (four of the first five plays of the quarter were pass attempts) and execution from quarterback Connor Cook (all four were incomplete) gave Nebraska more time.

Cook said he thought the offense, which averaged more than 50 points per game in the first month of the season, took a step backward against the Cornhuskers. Cook’s play this year is the driving force in the Spartans new ability to amass big leads, an unnatural feeling for a program used to toughing out victories on the back of their stifling defense. It’s a little uncomfortable for Cook, which is how he would like it to remain.

“Once you get a lead, you start to feel comfortable and kind of let your guard down. I think that kind of happened to me a little bit after Tony had that one touchdown,” he said. “The lesson to be learned for me as a player is to never be comfortable, to keep piling up the points.”
Dantonio/MeyerUSA TODAY SportsMark Dantonio, left, and Urban Meyer have their teams on course for another huge B1G showdown.

In case a reminder was needed after another chaotic weekend on the field, rankings, projections, underdogs and favorites don't usually mean a whole lot to college football. The best laid plans typically don't last long.

But there is one from the preseason that suddenly appears to be back on track. Though there is still more than a month to go until what was presumed to be the biggest battle in the Big Ten actually kicks off on Nov. 8 in East Lansing, Michigan, what is the fun in just sitting around and waiting until then to start talking about it. Now that No. 8 Michigan State and No. 15 Ohio State seem to be on a collision course again, who is in better shape for that matchup and to potentially win a Big Ten crown?

We are breaking it down Take Two-style.

Austin Ward: Ohio State

Go back through the checklist of reasons the Buckeyes were picked as the top contender in the conference and a potential factor in the College Football Playoff before the season started. Dynamic quarterback, dangerous defensive line, explosive weapons at the skill positions, and a decorated coaching staff that has proven it can get the most out of the talent on hand.

What exactly has changed since then?

Certainly Braxton Miller's injury was a meaningful loss given his experience and the two Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year trophies. But don't look now, after an early hiccup J.T. Barrett is actually on pace to post better passing numbers across the board and looks every bit as suited to run Urban Meyer's spread offense as his predecessor. And all those same talented players at wide receiver, running back and tight end that were supposed to make Miller's life easier are doing precisely that for Barrett, with the only challenge finding a way to get all of them touches.

The defensive line might not be the best in the nation thanks to the indefinite suspension of Noah Spence. But as long as Joey Bosa is around to wreak havoc on the edge and Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington are still handling their business on the inside, the Buckeyes are still as fearsome up front as anybody in the Big Ten.

And don't forget that Meyer, a two-time national champ, is still on the sideline overseeing the entire operation.

Ohio State has some weaknesses, and anybody who favored the Spartans initially still likely has the same reasons to point to at this stage of the season. The head-to-head meeting is on Michigan State's turf, it won the last matchup on a neutral field and the Buckeyes still look suspect at times in the secondary.

But after putting that early loss to Virginia Tech behind them and moving on from Miller's injury, the Buckeyes are starting to look exactly like a conference contender should. Based on the preseason predictions, nothing has changed.

Josh Moyer: Michigan State

Let’s not overthink this, Austin. The Buckeyes are definitely improving every week, but they have played just two teams with winning records so far -- and they have only won one of those games (Virginia Tech, Maryland). So I think it’s a little premature to start saying Ohio State boasts a better team than the defending Big Ten champion.

I’m not saying the Spartans’ schedule is all that much harder, but they have at least impressed with a good win against Nebraska. Plus, they have played two ranked opponents. No Ohio State opponent is even receiving votes in either poll. And you mentioned Barrett's gaudy numbers, but he has played just one defense -- Virginia Tech -- that is ranked within the top 85. Have the Buckeyes really been tested yet?

Michigan State is the safe pick, the easy choice here. Meyer called his secondary an "Achilles’ Heel"; Michigan State has no glaring weakness. Cincinnati actually posted more passing yards and passing touchdowns against Ohio State than Oregon did against Michigan State.

True, the Spartans’ 2014 defense isn’t as good as 2013. Even head coach Mark Dantonio admitted that. But it’s still forcing turnovers (No. 4 in the country), still limiting yards (No. 11 in the country), still racking up sacks (No. 3 in the country) and still limiting rushing yards (No. 4 in the country.) Ohio State just can’t compare right now.

On top of it all, Michigan State’s offense is clearly better than last season. Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford aren't putting up video game numbers, but they have been solid. And give me Tony Lippett over Devin Smith any day. The Buckeyes are a good team, but the Spartans are the better team right now.

We’ll find out for sure on Nov. 8 but, until then, Michigan State will still remain No. 1 in our Big Ten power rankings, Vegas will still favor MSU over OSU, and voters from Ohio to California will still agree in the polls that the Spartans are the better team. Because they are.
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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- It wasn’t joy that No. 10 Michigan State felt after notching the biggest win of its young season on Saturday night. Not frustration exactly, either.

No, the looks on the faces of the Spartans’ players and coaches approached something else following their 27-22 victory over No. 19 Nebraska. They resembled confusion.

Just about anyone who watched the game from start to finish could relate. Michigan State thoroughly dominated Nebraska for three-plus quarters, leading 27-3 with 13 minutes left to play. Yet it took Trae Waynes' interception with 30 seconds left at his own 15 to stave off the Cornhuskers’ furious rally.

[+] EnlargeTrae Waynes
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan State's celebration after Trae Waynes' clinching interception was more relief than anything else, as Michigan State came close to coughing up a 24-point lead.
“It’s uncharacteristic of us when we do get a lead like that to let people back in,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “That does not happen. But it happened, so we’ve got to deal with it and learn from that.”

In a weekend when carnage enveloped many of the top-ranked teams in college football, the Spartans emerged from the rubble in great shape simply by surviving. By downing the last unbeaten team left in the Big Ten, they also reasserted their dominance in the conference -- that’s 11 straight league wins, dating back to 2012 -- and kept their hopes for the College Football Playoff flickering.

Yet they also missed their chance to deliver an emphatic statement, one that maybe could have rinsed away more of the stink from a 46-27 loss at Oregon in Week 2. After a Tony Lippett 32-yard reverse for a touchdown in the third quarter built that 24-point lead, many in green thought that statement was already crafted, including the students who fled for the exits. Even some players thought it was over.

“I was kind of like, ‘This is pretty much in the bag,’” quarterback Connor Cook said. “We need to learn to not get too comfortable when we get a lead.”

At least there was a good reason for the overconfidence. For 47 minutes, the Spartans’ defense turned a powerful Nebraska offense into putty. The Huskers came into Saturday night averaging 354.8 yards rushing yards per game, second-best in the FBS, and their Heisman Trophy candidate tailback, Ameer Abdullah, had barreled through everyone while leading the country in rushing.

But Nebraska managed just 85 total yards and no points in the first half against Pat Narduzzi’s defense, and Abdullah’s Heisman campaign likely evaporated into the chilly October sky. Abdullah would finish with just 45 rushing yards on 24 carries, his lowest output since the infamous 70-31 Big Ten championship game loss to Wisconsin in 2012. His longest run of the night was just 9 yards. Forget the "No Fly Zone": Spartan Stadium was "Nowhere to Run."

The Michigan State defense, which had broken down late at Oregon and allowed some atypical explosive plays against three September tomato cans, finally began to round into its punishing form of the past few seasons. The Spartans never could quite deliver the final knockout punch in the second half, though.

“Our defense took like 10 steps forward,” said Cook, who completed just 11 of his 29 pass attempts for 234 yards. “But our offense took a step back.”

And that gave Nebraska the opening to nearly pull off the stunning comeback. Despite losing top receiver Kenny Bell to an injury in the first half, an ineffective Abdullah and a quarterback in Tommy Armstrong who got knocked around all night, the Huskers finally got off the mat to score a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns on offense. Then De'Mornay Pierson-El’s 62-yard punt return for a score with 3:22 left frayed nerves even further.

Alonzo Moore nearly hauled in a one-handed touchdown catch the play before Waynes picked off his second pass of the game to end things and continued Nebraska’s futility in marquee road games.

“I said [before the last Nebraska drive], ‘How are we going to make our mark?’” Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. “‘How are we going to be known?’”

Last year’s Rose Bowl champion Spartans were known for forcefully closing out games behind their running game, as they won every league contest by double digits. This year’s team hasn’t located that killer instinct just yet.

“We know we have great potential to have a really good team, and it’s just something we have to do through finishing,” offensive lineman Travis Jackson said. “We’re just trying to make our identity as we go through the Big Ten.”

Unfortunately, Michigan State will probably need to win by wide margins in conference play to convince a skeptical public -- and perhaps the selection committee -- that a Big Ten team deserves a playoff spot. The Week 6 chaos helped the Spartans’ cause, but they have to overcome an early loss and the lack of any more signature games before the Nov. 8 showdown versus rapidly improving Ohio State.

This team showed how good it could be during stretches of the Oregon game and for a much longer period on Saturday night.

“If we play like that for 60 minutes, we’re going to be a tough team to mess with,” safety Kurtis Drummond.

It was the last 13 minutes that caused all the confusion.

“I’m just glad I’m not sitting here talking about how it slipped away,” Dantonio said. “Somehow, some way, we finished it.”

In this wacky weekend of college football, just surviving was enough for now. But Michigan State can restore some order to the process if it can tap its full potential the rest of the way.
Shilique Calhoun, Ameer AbdullahUSA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesMichigan State's Shilique Calhoun, right, and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah will play key roles Saturday.

The conference game of the year so far in the Big Ten arrives on Saturday night as No. 19 Nebraska, the league’s lone unbeaten, visits 10th-ranked Michigan State (8 ET, ABC).

The Huskers and Spartans met as division rivals each of the past three years -- with Nebraska winning two, including a comeback victory at Spartan Stadium two years ago. Last season, MSU beat the Huskers 41-28 in Lincoln.

They are on opposite sides of the Big Ten now and could meet again in the league title game. ESPN.com Big Ten reporters Mitch Sherman and Brian Bennett break down the matchup:

Sherman: The marquee matchup in this game for the past two seasons involved Nebraska’s offense against the highly rated Michigan State defense. Those dynamics might have shifted this year, and we will get to that, but first, let’s look at what happens when the visiting team possesses the football. Nebraska has committed more to the running game over the past two weeks than at any time under fourth-year offensive coordinator Tim Beck. The Huskers kept it on the ground 124 times against Miami and Illinois, gaining more than 800 yards. They have been efficient and controlled tempo when the run game gets going. MSU, of course, presents a different challenge as a team that prides itself of committing resources to stop the run. Is Nebraska playing right into the Spartans’ hands if it tries to force its will early with the ground game?

Bennett: I don't think so, Mitch. This isn't the same Michigan State defense we've seen the past few seasons, at least not yet. The Spartans have already given up a bunch of big plays early this season, which was to be expected after they replaced six starters from a year ago. Coach Mark Dantonio came out and said, "Our defense is not broke" this week. Now, the defensive breakdowns have mostly come on passing plays, as the Spartans are allowing fewer than 80 yards per game on the ground. But Nebraska has had success running the ball against Pat Narduzzi's defense in the past, running for 182 yards as a team last season and producing four 100-yard rushers in the three Big Ten meetings between these clubs. The Huskers' physicality on the edge with their receivers helps them run the ball well against this scheme, and Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah looks like he refuses to be stopped this season.

Sherman: Abdullah is the elite offensive talent in this game, no doubt, but I think, outside the state of Michigan, the college football public isn’t paying enough attention to Connor Cook. He showed great poise in Lincoln last season, converting eight third downs through the air. And Cook is a lot better this season. Nebraska will try to bring heat against the junior quarterback. How much pressure has he faced this season, and do you trust his ability to extend plays and avoid mistakes if forced to throw?

Bennett: I really have no worries about Cook. He has proved himself in big games, including last season's Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl, and aside from a couple of poor throws, he was very good against Oregon. He will be fine, and Michigan State's receivers continue to be underrated. The guy I wonder about is the other quarterback, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong Jr. He has been decent, but far from great this season, and now he will face a defense that can throw a lot of different looks and blitzes at you. Can he avoid the turnover bug that has so plagued the Huskers in these types of matchups? That is a huge key.

Sherman: With Armstrong, it’s a week-to-week situation -- sometimes even more fluid. He struggled to complete a pass in the first half last week against Illinois, then performed much better when Nebraska grabbed a big lead. Armstrong’s running is much improved this season, but his consistency must improve. If he is off his game as a passer on Saturday, Nebraska won’t have much success offensively. MSU defensive end Shilique Calhoun could play a role in rattling Armstrong. Calhoun and his Nebraska counterpart Randy Gregory are both first-round talents. Who is likely to make a bigger impact?

Bennett:
Gregory has been a beast since coming back from injury, and the matchup between him and MSU tackle Jack Conklin will be a great one. Calhoun hasn't yet had quite the impact we thought he would make this season, but Bane can always rise to the occasion (he had a key forced fumble last season in Lincoln). I think Gregory will be the bigger factor, but he will need to be especially good, because the Spartans have more defensive playmakers surrounding their star defensive end than Nebraska does.
Welcome to the Big Ten time machine. Watch your step and hop aboard. Sorry, Mr. Slive, no standby today. Every seat is taken.

Passenger Delany in seat 1A, please stop ringing your call button. I told you we can't go back to Nov. 18, 2006. Yes, yes, I realize that is when the Big Ten sat atop the college football world with its two most recognizable programs ranked 1 and 2. I know you would give it all up -- the money, BTN's success, the expansion moves -- to relive that magical day in Columbus. Not happening, pal. Here is another bag of peanuts.

Our destination is the more recent past, although for some it feels like a long time ago. We are rewinding exactly one year to Sept. 29, 2013. Here we go!

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke, Mark Dantonio
AP Photo/Paul SancyaMichigan coach Brady Hoke, left, and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio have seen their programs head in different directions since last September.
Meet the Michigan State Spartans. They are 3-1 and unranked after a 17-13 loss to Notre Dame. The defeat reaffirmed that the offense, which sputtered throughout 2012, isn't getting better. Quarterback Connor Cook, replaced late in the Notre Dame game, tells reporters, "I would have wished that the coaches had faith in me to keep me in there." The Spartans are preparing for their Big Ten opener at Iowa, and few expect much to change with the quarterback situation or the passing game.

Now meet the Michigan Wolverines. They are 4-0 and ranked No. 19. They have just had two shaky wins against inferior opponents (Akron and Connecticut), but they previously beat Notre Dame 41-30 behind quarterback Devin Gardner, who put up the ninth-best single-game yards total (376) in team history. They are a rising program under third-year coach Brady Hoke with tremendous momentum on the recruiting trail. The growing feeling is that the Big Ten soon will revert to the Big Two (Ohio State and Michigan) and everyone else.

Speaking of those Buckeyes, they have yet to lose a game under second-year coach Urban Meyer. Yesterday, quarterback Braxton Miller returned from injury to spark Ohio State to a 31-24 win against Wisconsin. The fourth-ranked Buckeyes are loaded at quarterback with Miller and beloved backup Kenny Guiton. Their first Big Ten title since 2009 seems likely, and they could be headed for the BCS title game.

And here we have Maryland and Rutgers. They are still nine months away from becoming official Big Ten members, but most Big Ten fans wish their arrival date could be pushed to, you know, never. Maryland is 4-0 and ranked No. 25 and Rutgers is 3-1 after a win against Bret Bielema's Arkansas Razorbacks, but few expect either team to truly boost the Big Ten. Legends and Leaders had a stronger approval rating than these two.

OK, now we're heading back to the present. Aaaand ... we're back.

It's only been a year, but the Big Ten landscape has dramatically shifted, particularly in the state of Michigan.

Since Sept. 29, 2013, Michigan State is 13-1 with a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl championship. The Spartans have outscored their opponents 497-223. Cook has thrown 26 touchdowns against eight interceptions. MSU's lone loss came in a place (Oregon's Autzen Stadium) where most suffer the same fate. Mark Dantonio is considered one of the nation's premier coaches, and his team remains alive for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Fifty miles away, the Michigan program is in utter disarray. The Wolverines are 2-3. They ended the Notre Dame series by suffering their first shutout since 1984. They failed to score an offensive touchdown against Utah. They suffered their largest home loss to Minnesota (30-14) since 1962. Hoke has lost eight of his past 11 games but said after the Minnesota game that he still thinks Michigan can win the Big Ten. Um ...

(Just a reminder: there's no smoking of anything in the Big Ten time machine.)

If losing isn't bad enough, Hoke faces more heat for leaving quarterback Shane Morris in the game despite Morris wobbling after absorbing a helmet-to-helmet hit. Perhaps the only Michigan employee less popular than Hoke right now is his boss, athletic director Dave Brandon, whose department was mocked following last week's Coca-Cola/free tickets fiasco.

Things aren't nearly as bleak in Columbus, but Ohio State isn't the juggernaut it was a year ago. The Buckeyes haven't beaten a Power 5 team since Michigan in The Game last November. Miller is out for the season with a shoulder injury. The secondary remains vulnerable. Young quarterback J.T. Barrett is improving, but struggled against the only top-90 defense he has faced so far (Virginia Tech).

Maryland and Rutgers, meanwhile, are a combined 8-2, each with a 3-point loss as the lone setback. The Terrapins lead the East Division, and Rutgers looks much improved on both sides of the ball. The Big Ten hasn't had many bright spots this season, but Maryland and Rutgers are two of them.

"College football," Dantonio said, "is such a changing landscape."

Expect the unexpected, especially in the Big Ten. The past year in this league shows that the only guarantee is that the future won't resemble the present.

Perhaps there is hope for Michigan. Michigan State, meanwhile, can't get complacent. No one knows what the coming weeks will bring.

"We still have things to prove," Dantonio said. "Our reputation right now is built off of last year's success. It starts here.

"We have to play in the present."
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EUGENE, Ore. -- When Michigan State scored 20 consecutive points and took a nine-point lead over Oregon in the third quarter, the collective head nod of the college football nation was palpable from coast to coast. Everyone had seen this storyline before. Oregon was a fun team, a good team even. Interesting uniforms. But when the Ducks go nose-to-nose with a highly rated program that makes its money on the line of scrimmage, their ludicrous speed offense sputters to a stop.

Auburn in the national title game after the 2010 season. LSU in 2011 and Stanford the past two seasons. The Ducks, according to the skeptics, wilted against physical teams, and bruising Michigan State was taking it to the Ducks on Saturday. It wasn't difficult to imagine the I-told-you-so's and knowing smirks breaking out across the country.

[+] EnlargeRoyce Freeman
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesRoyce Freeman's second-half production helped Oregon rally past Michigan State on Saturday.
That storyline broached and retweeted by folks ready to dismiss Oregon from the national conversation -- again -- is the most notable part of No. 3 Oregon's 46-27 victory, at least from the Ducks' perspective. The perfectly reasonable reintroduction of that narrative made it all the more meaningful that Oregon ripped the Spartans apart over the game's final 20 minutes, announcing themselves -- again -- as national title contenders with college football's marquee nonconference game of the season.

The familiar script was on the table, and the Ducks tore it up. They matched and overcame the Spartans' physicality. Then they turned on the showmanship, just to remind everyone they were still fancy-pants Oregon and they like to win cool.

It was a big win for the program. It was a big win for second-year coach Mark Helfrich, who is trying to emerge from the considerable shadow cast by Chip Kelly.

"Our team was good tonight," Helfrich said. "[Michigan State] was an exceptional team."

The Spartans, ranked seventh, looked exceptional while taking a 27-18 lead early in the third quarter. To that point, they had stymied the Ducks' offense and moved doggedly down the field with a balanced attack. The Spartans looked a lot like the Stanford team that kept Oregon from playing for the national title the previous two seasons. Yet one quick-thinking play from Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota seemingly changed everything.

On third-and-10 from the Oregon 41-yard line with just over six minutes left in the third, Mariota was chased from the pocket. He probably could have run for a first down, but he flipped the ball to true freshman running back Royce Freeman for a 17-yard gain. It was vintage Mariota improvisation, the sort of creative, off-script playmaking that has distinguished the Ducks during their rise as a national power.

Mariota would finish the drive with a 24-yard touchdown pass. After the Ducks' resurgent defense forced a three-and-out, Mariota gave the Ducks the lead for good with a 37-yard TD toss to Keanon Lowe. And just like that, the rout was on. It was stunning but also familiar. Oregon was doing its thing, imposing its will, wearing a foe down, only it was doing it against a team that was supposed to be unyielding.

"Things started to snowball and we couldn't stop it from snowballing," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.

Speaking of snowballs, Mariota's Heisman Trophy campaign should make like one. He was the linchpin of the Ducks' turnaround. He completed 17 of 28 passes for 318 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions and rushed for 42 yards, but his contribution was more than pure numbers. On the go-ahead drive, he rushed for 11 yards on third-and-9. On the Ducks' final possession, which killed 6:31 off the clock and ended all Michigan State hope, he rushed for 40 yards on second-and-17.

Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. That's what Mariota did. That's what Heisman winners do.

"I should have to pay him to watch him play," Helfrich quipped.

Yet Oregon isn't a one-star constellation. It produced a long catalog of clutch in the overwhelming second half. Physical? The defense produced a critical stop on fourth-and-2 from the Ducks 24-yard line in the fourth quarter. It allowed just three second-half points. While Oregon averaged a stout 7.2 yards per play, the Spartans went for just 5.6. Physically impressive? Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu had a diving interception off a deflection that might end up being the most athletic play of the season.

The Ducks' offensive line, struggling in the first half and suffering an injury to right tackle Andre Yruretagoyena early in the third quarter, asserted itself in the second half. It first pushed the pile for a key third-and-1 conversion before the go-ahead score, and then took control in the fourth quarter as Oregon drove 96 yards in 11 plays for its final TD, a 14-yard touchdown jaunt on fourth-and-2 from freshman running back Freeman.

"I don't think we were fazed by their physicality," Lowe said. "We're physical, too."

Helfrich wouldn't take the bait when asked to ascribe special meaning to the victory. Nor would be say the whole "Oregon can't play with physical teams" skepticism has been vanquished. Truth is it probably hasn't been. As good as Michigan State is, the Spartans play in the Big Ten and the Big Ten had a horrible Saturday, with Michigan getting stomped by Notre Dame and Ohio State losing to Virginia Tech, among other indignities.

Oregon won't win over the entire nation until it wins a national championship, the one glory that has eluded the program.

Beating Michigan State, while only giving the Ducks a 2-0 record, is a significant step toward potentially filling that hole in the program's résumé.
Marcus Mariota and Connor CookAP PhotoThe performances of Marcus Mariota, left, and Connor Cook will go a long way in determining the outcome of Saturday's Oregon-Michigan State game.
There will be no "real" Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2015. The "real" Rose Bowl, whose purity previously had been diluted by the BCS, is a casualty of the College Football Playoff this season. While that will make many of us old fogies wince, the only constructive response is to embrace change and recognize the fulfillment of decades-long clamoring for a playoff was inevitably going to kill off some cherished institutions with its birth.

As a consolation prize, however, the college football gods have given us No. 8 Michigan State visiting No. 3 Oregon on Saturday. It's a Rose Bowl matchup the first weekend of September, with the (alleged) Big Ten best versus (alleged) Pac-12 best. With Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller out for the season and UCLA's less than scintillating performance at Virginia, this one has gained further traction as a potential CFP selection committee barometer for both teams and both conferences.

No, there will be no sunset behind the San Gabriel Mountains at Autzen Stadium, but there likely will be rosy fingers of meaning extending from whatever happens Saturday. For one, an early-season victory over a top-10 team in a nonconference game is exactly what the selection committee claims it will pay homage to. As an optional challenge boldly undertaken outside of the rote bureaucracy of conference scheduling, this game should serve as a badge of honor for teams trying to distinguish themselves to 13 judges in a conference room Dec. 7.

Ah, the committee. We can be fairly certain that, for better or worse, the great "Transitive Property of College Football" will play a role in its deliberations, and that is the perception prize the Spartans and Ducks will battle over in addition to the scoreboard numbers.

If Oregon wins, it will thereby -- transitively -- be better than any team the Spartans beat over the remainder of their season. If Michigan State ends up the Big Ten champion at 12-1, the Ducks will be viewed as the de facto Big Ten champs -- at least if the Ducks do well enough over the rest of their season to merit such an overreaching (overreacting?) designation. This playoff math would be rendered less relevant if Oregon, in this scenario, meanders to a 10-2 finish and fails to win the Pac-12's North Division.

The same goes for Michigan State, perhaps even more so because the rest of its schedule is not as demanding. If the Spartans beat a Ducks team -- in fearsome Autzen Stadium, the Pac-12's toughest road venue, no less -- that goes on to win the ostensibly SEC-ish Pac-12, their bounty could be a defensible claim to the top perch in two Power 5 conferences. That is, of course, if they take care of business over the entire season.

So the function is almost a transference of the Rose Bowl's typical season-ending meaning, just without any of the cool pageantry. A further twist is that both teams after the game become each other's biggest fans, with both winner and loser wanting the other to make the result a more impressive measure of itself.

Not that you'll hear Ducks coach Mark Helfrich or Spartans leader Mark Dantonio celebrating this sort of curlicue thinking. They've got teams with big goals, including playoff goals, but placing this game on such a pedestal could make a loss feel catastrophic within the locker room. Then what about the next 10 or 11 games?

“[This is] game No. 2. We have 10 games after that. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves," Dantonio said. "It’s not an end-all either way. That’s going to be a measuring stick game for us. Where are we at? Who are we? It will give us a little more of a sense of identity early in the season.”

Once you get past going John le Carré on potential selection committee intrigues, the football part of this football game is pretty cool, too. Although the teams share a team color of green, that's pretty much where the commonality ends, and even then, Oregon long ago went ludicrous speed on the notion of team colors and sartorial standards.

Speaking of ludicrous speed, Oregon, you might have heard, plays fast and furious on offense and piles up yards and points like a frenzying school of pirañas. Meanwhile, Michigan State, as you know, plays defense like a thick wall of titanium. Wall? It's more like an impregnable box -- with walls slowly closing together.

Last year, Oregon ranked No. 2 in the nation in total offense (565 yards per game) and No. 4 in scoring offense (45.5 ppg). Michigan State ranked No. 2 in total defense (252.2 ypg) and No. 3 in scoring defense (13.2 ppg). The Spartans also enter the game knowing they beat the Pac-12 team that beat the Ducks, given that they dispatched Stanford 24-20 in the 2014 Rose Bowl.

Of course, an over-reliance on what happened the past season is one of the greatest weaknesses in so-called college football punditry. The first weekend has already shown us that projecting forward based on returning starters and extrapolated improvement is an inexact science. Both Oregon and Michigan State are missing key players from 2013 on both sides of the ball. They also have shiny new players ready to glow.

Still, the circumstantial evidence suggests both teams will lean on their obvious strengths on Saturday. The Ducks and quarterback Marcus Mariota, a leading Heisman Trophy candidate, rolled up 673 yards without really trying in an opening win over South Dakota, while Michigan State's defense throttled Jacksonville State 45-7 yielding just 244 yards.

The obvious only goes so far. The game ultimately might swing on the secondary quantities. Spartans quarterback Connor Cook has been surging since the middle of the past year, and he was darn near perfect in the opener and actually earned a perfect rating of 100 in ESPN.com's Total QB Rating. Oregon's defense has long been given short shrift, despite ranking among the nation's leaders and sending numerous players to the NFL.

The sum conclusion is that, while we will go Rose Bowl-less this season, this is a game that has plenty to offer, both in football on Saturday and in potential micro-analyzed meaning as the season progresses.
The 2014 Pac-12 season starts tonight, and that is unquestionably a righteous thing. The first week's slate of games? Well, it's not exactly going to awaken any echoes. Still, Confucius say he who casts a disrespectful glance at a season opener finds his beer warm and his prayers to the college football gods unanswered.

Yet with all due respect, the Pac-12 plays five games versus overmatched FCS foes and is double-digit favorites in four other games. The only underdog is California, which visits Northwestern.

Ah, but that second Saturday. That, my friends, is a biggie. Not entirely across the conference, but two games will attract beaucoup Pac-12 and national eyeballs and are decidedly meaningful in terms of setting up the first season of the College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Don RyanMarcus Mariota and Oregon can make a significant statement with a win over Michigan State in Week 2.
Start with No. 8 Michigan State's visit to No. 3 Oregon. This might be the biggest nonconference matchup of the season, and it's even bigger after the season-ending injury to Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. The Spartans are now the clear favorites in the Big Ten, as the Ducks are the popular preseason pick in the Pac-12. It might look like a Rose Bowl, but it probably ends up operating like a CFP elimination game. Or validation game.

It's an intriguing matchup, too: Celebrated offense versus celebrated defense, with the Ducks, led by preseason Heisman favorite Marcus Mariota, facing Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who might be the best in the business.

Meanwhile, No. 11 Stanford plays host to No. 15 USC. The Trojans used to feast on the Cardinal. Now this is a bitter and highly competitive rivalry. What makes this game fun is the rivalry is as much player-based as fan based. That bitterness ignited between Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh -- "What's your deal?" -- and has maintained its burn over the past few years, with the teams exchanging major upsets the past two seasons.

It also won't cool things down, at least in terms of perception, that new Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian and Stanford coach David Shaw were at public loggerheads last year over the Cardinal allegedly faking injuries in a tight victory over Sark's Washington team. While it might be responsible to note that Shaw and Sarkisian seem to get along well and chat amiably at coaching functions, that would de-sensationalize an angle the Pac-12 blog would prefer to jump up and down and point at next week.

It also has been established, though less publicly, that more than a few Stanford players were extremely unhappy with Sarkisian's accusation, most notably DE Ben Gardner, whose NFL career has already been waylaid by the shoulder issue that hampered him against the Huskies.

We also must add that the irreverent Stanford band surely is already clicking its collective heels over the possibilities the "Josh Shaw Tall Tale of Heroism" offers for a halftime snark.

Even if you cast aside the emotions, this is a big Pac-12 game. The winner figures to establish itself as a top-10 team and national contender. While they occupy different divisions, one will end up 0-1 in conference play and the other will be 1-0. In what figure to be tight races in both divisions, that one-game swing could prove critical.

A USC victory would be a significant event in the South Division. The Trojans don't play Oregon, as UCLA does. Arizona State doesn't, either. The Bruins and the Sun Devils both play Stanford. The Sun Devils visit USC. In other words, in terms of schedule strength among the contenders, a USC win over Stanford might change the perception of the South race.

Of course, from a coach's perspective we are getting ahead of ourselves. USC plays host to Fresno State on Saturday. While the Bulldogs don't look like the formidable foe the Trojans whipped in the Las Vegas Bowl a year ago, they certainly have a pulse. Stanford plays UC Davis and Oregon plays South Dakota. Both will roll, though some Davis folks have pointed out the Aggies upset the Cardinal in 2005, one of the notable moments of Walt Harris' coaching tenure.

As you well know, sports teams play one game at a time.

"We approach this game, literally, exactly like every other one," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said of South Dakota and, by extension, Michigan State. "To do anything else would be a conflict of our process, disrespectful to our opponent and to the game."

While Helfrich and Shaw admit that they spent plenty of time this offseason reviewing Michigan State and USC/Washington film knowing about their big dates in Week 2, the nature of football is routine, and routine dictates you prepare for each game the same way.

Dangers of looking ahead this week? Unlikely. For one, it's the first game of the season. The opportunity to play a real game in front of a crowd after a long preseason camp is a reward in itself. Don't expect players to be blasé and unfocused.

And there are stakes for players in game one, no matter how undecorated the foe is, according to Shaw.

"We have a lot of guys still competing for things, for who's going to get more playing time," he said. "I'd feel bad for the guy who shows a sign of not focusing on the task at hand. He's going to meet with a not very happy Coach Shaw."
Some national reaction to the news of Braxton Miller's season-ending shoulder injury is focusing not only on the harsh consequences for Ohio State but also on the impact for the Big Ten as a whole. Mark Schlabach basically says the league's quest for a spot in the College Football Playoff took a huge hit.

To that, I say let's all slow down for just a bit. Some key counterpoints to consider:

[+] EnlargeJosiah Price
AP Photo/Al GoldisTo say the loss of Braxton Miller dooms the Big Ten's College Football Playoff chase is demeaning to the defending Rose Bowl champs.
1. It's Aug. 19. To pretend any of us has any idea what will happen in an upcoming college football season is to ignore history. How many pundits picked Auburn to make the BCS title game last year? I'm guessing most people would have sold their stock on Michigan State's season after the Spartans' lost at Notre Dame on Sept. 21. They turned out all right.

2. Ohio State isn't suddenly going to turn into a 6-6 pumpkin. There is still a ton of talent on this team. I watched an entire practice this spring in which Miller did not participate. I was still blown away by the speed and athleticism on the roster. Are the Buckeyes a top 10 team now? Maybe not. But they will still be, at the very least, a top 20 club. They're probably not a playoff team, but beating Ohio State won't be a meaningless win for other Big Ten teams, either.

3. There is more than one team in the Big Ten. Sure, the Buckeyes have been the league's flag-bearer for most of this century and have more national credibility than any other conference program. But don't forget the Buckeyes haven't won an outright Big Ten championship since 2009. There is no guarantee they would have claimed one this year, either, as Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska are all legit title contenders.

4. Let's go back to Michigan State here. The Spartans proved themselves as elite the past year, as they finished No. 3 in the final polls and beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Mark Dantonio's team goes to Oregon in Week 2 in a game that could define their season. If the Spartans win there, assuming Oregon goes on to have a very strong season, they will be formidable playoff contenders no matter what else is going on in the Big Ten. Even if, say, they lost to the Ducks by a field goal, going undefeated the rest of the way should be enough to get Michigan State into the field of four.

5. Let's say another team from the West -- such as Iowa or Wisconsin, should the Badgers beat LSU in the opener -- runs the table. Don't you think a Big Ten championship game featuring the Spartans and an undefeated West team would get the attention of the selection committee? Iowa and Nebraska probably need a zero in the loss column, while Michigan State and Wisconsin could afford a setback, given their marquee nonconference opposition. And, hey, who's to say Ohio State doesn't go 12-0 again, even without Miller? Urban Meyer has yet to lose a regular season game in Columbus, after all.

The bottom line is there are far too many variables -- including what goes on in the other Power 5 conferences -- to count the Big Ten out at this early date. The path to Pasadena (or, less likely, New Orleans) certainly got a lot bumpier with the loss of the league's best player. But the road hasn't been closed yet.
Boston College coach Steve Addazio remembers an era when players wanted to redshirt as true freshmen to better prepare them for the final four years of their college career.

"Now it's 'I want to play,' " Addazio, 55, said. "If you're talking about not playing them early, the majority are like 'What do you mean?'"

So, the ability to play or possibly even start as a true freshman has become a regular sales pitch for coaches from the Power Five to the Group of Five. It's certainly a tool in the belt for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. Last week, Fisher alluded to the number of freshmen All-Americans he's coached the last four seasons. Twenty-four hours later, it was on the program's official recruiting Twitter page.

"The last [four] years we've had 14 freshmen All-Americans," said Fisher, condensing multiple outlets' freshmen award teams into one, concise Florida State propaganda poster. "If you come in ready to play, we're willing to put you on the field. It's critical for guys to come in saying 'When I'm the best, I'll play.'"

Fisher has the goods to back up his claims, even if the numbers are obviously skewed to best represent his program. But how does his résumé compare to those coaching some of the country's other top programs?

I tried to come up with a way to accurately discern which schools play the most freshmen and decided true freshmen letterwinners was the simplest and most effective way to crunch the numbers. To earn a letter, a player has to actually play consistently through the season. The disclaimer is each program can use different benchmarks when awarding letters, but there is never going to be a perfect way.

I began with Florida State's, looking back at the 2011-2013 classes. To properly quantify the data from Florida State, I decided I'd look at the five schools ranked highest in the preseason polls that have had its coach in place at least five seasons. Oregon's Mark Helfrich was offered an exemption because he was promoted from within and is in his sixth season with the Ducks. Coaches in place at least five years was the stipulation since an incoming coach might be susceptible to playing the prospects he recruited or having a number of transfers that could open up starting or rotational spots.

The criteria: Each class was looked at and the total number of signees was pared down to just those who enrolled as members of the football team in the fall. Junior college signees were excluded, as were any recruits who were academically or medically disqualified before playing a game. That explains why the total number of freshmen for our purposes might look different than what might be seen on RecruitingNation. Any true freshmen who spent a year at a post-graduate or prep school was also excluded. Redshirt freshmen were disqualified, too.

Bottom line is if the player was not a part of the football team the fall following his high school graduation, he was excluded.

Nearly all of the data was collected after poring through media guides and archives, although the communications departments at some of the schools were also helpful providing numbers and deserve recognition.

So, here is the actual data:

 

It is hardly a coincidence that Fisher and Alabama's Nick Saban, who mentored Fisher at LSU, have identical percentages of true freshmen earning a letter. Fisher and Saban arguably have been the two best recruiters over the last few cycles, and, the data shows those two are not going to keep young talent off the field simply because of age. Nearly half of the true freshmen at Alabama and Florida State lettered over the last three seasons.

Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into a national title contender in a different manor, relying on experience. Only 12 percent of true freshmen lettered over the last three seasons. Recruiting to Michigan State is not the easy task it is at some other top-10 programs, and the Spartans are not recruiting as many ESPN 300-level players as the likes of Alabama and Florida State.

It should be noted Michigan State, Oklahoma and Oregon don't have quite the recruiting base Alabama and Florida State do.

Inquiring minds want to see how that 45 percent stacks up to some of the other top programs in the country, so even though they did not fit the criteria I looked at a few other schools with coaches in place at least five seasons and lately in the top half of the rankings. LSU was worth a look considering it's Les Miles' 10th season in Baton Rouge and, like Fisher and Saban, has recruited exceptionally well for a long period of time. Mark Richt is in his 14th season at Georgia and, like Miles, usually has a highly-regarded recruiting class. Steve Spurrier is in his 10th season at South Carolina and has steadily improved the Gamecocks' class to the point that the 2015 class is No. 5 nationally. Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson from a perennial disappointment into a two-time BCS bowl participant. And Ohio State and Texas A&M, mainly because it's worth seeing how third-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer fares considering he frequently voices his preference to avoid redshirting. Kevin Sumlin is also in the process of trying to build an SEC power that can compete with Alabama and LSU in the SEC West.

 

For the Buckeyes, out of the 69 true freshmen to land in Columbus, Ohio, from 2011-2013, 31 lettered -- the same 45 percent. Looking at just Meyer's two seasons, however, he is decimals ahead of Fisher and Saban at 46 percent (21 out of 46), thanks in large part to 14 freshmen letterwinners in his first season.

Georgia's Mark Richt has a percentage of nearly 50 percent, but the Bulldogs' numbers might be the most skewed. Along with South Carolina, the Bulldogs had several recruits that either did not qualify or spent time at a prep school or junior college. Also, Georgia's long list of dismissals and transfers is well documented, and all of the departures has opened up spots for freshmen to earn immediate playing time.

It is Miles, though, who plays a higher percentage of freshmen than all of the others. Twelve true freshmen lettered for LSU in both 2012 and 2013, and another nine earned a letter in 2011. There were a total of 65 applicable freshmen to enter LSU during that span and 33 of them lettered. That's a percentage of 51 percent.

Certainly the numbers will fluctuate year to year, and coaches at every single program are playing freshmen more frequently than ever before. When taking into account the timeline is over three years, LSU averages just one more freshman letterwinner per season than Alabama and Florida State. For our intents and purposes, though, the data shows which top programs consistently play the most freshmen in this new era of freshmen phenoms.

And, uh, FYI, Alabama has 19 ESPN 300 players prepping for their freshmen season this fall. LSU has 16, and Florida State isn't far off with 13 of their own.

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