September 29, 2009
Players, coaches and teams with the most at stake on Saturday.
Ordinarily a team placing near the top of the "Others Receiving Votes" category in the preseason polls would only be newsworthy in the sense that some people also like to know who won "Miss Congeniality" in the Miss America pageant. For Michigan State, though, the Spartans placing a de facto 27th in the preseason coaches' poll (and a solid third in Big Ten projections) was downright gratifying: Here's a team that had spent the better part of a decade under Bobby Williams and John L. Smith as one of the nation's most reliable disappointments, yet despite the graduation of the school's No. 3 all-time passer and No. 2 all-time rusher, the pundit class thought enough of the new attitude under no-nonsense coach Mark Dantonio to deem the '09 Spartans a fringe conference-title contender.
The reality so far, though, has been less "steady upward progression" than "same old Sparty." Since a predictable season-opening thrashing of I-AA Montana State, MSU suffered late, skin-of-the-teeth losses to Central Michigan and Notre Dame, followed by a dud at Wisconsin in which MSU had to score two touchdowns in the final two minutes just to lose by eight. The three-game skid raises the stakes of this Saturday's date with Michigan beyond the usual in-state machismo -- if the Spartans drop to 1-4, they also become longshots even to earn a bowl bid, much less making any noise in the Big 10.
It's been seven years since the Spartans came into the MSU-UM game as the defending state champion, an unofficial title they earned with a two-touchdown victory in Ann Arbor last October. Given the now-infamous struggles of the '08 Wolverines, MSU probably should've been able to pull away from Michigan earlier than it did (Michigan QB Steven Threet threw three picks, and UM's leading rusher, Brandon Minor, ended up with only 55 yards), but you would've been hard-pressed to find any disappointment emanating from the visitors' section of Michigan Stadium, where the gleeful postgame chant of "Lit-tle sis-ter" dripped with syrupy-thick irony. With the Wolverines headed toward the worst finish in the program's history, State appeared to have a very real opportunity to do the unthinkable: Overtake the venerable Maize and Blue as the state's premier football program, at least for the near future.
A year later, of course, Michigan's moribund offense has received a "Pulp Fiction"-sized adrenaline shot from freshman quarterback Tate Forcier, and the window for the Spartans to become "big brother" in the state may already be creaking shut. But in-state superiority is really the least of MSU's worries at this point. A regression to 1-4 (and 0-2 in the Big Ten) could signal a death march back toward the most embarrassing depths of the Williams or Smith eras.
As positive a start as Dantonio got in his first two years in East Lansing -- he's already led the Spartans to their first nine-win season and back-to-back bowl bids since Nick Saban's tenure -- a sub-.500 backslide would hardly be unprecedented at MSU. Bobby Williams led the Spartans to 7-5 and a Silicon Valley Bowl win in his second year before completely losing control of the program in his third year and getting fired with three games left in the season. Following that mess, an 8-5 record and Alamo Bowl bid in John L. Smith's first season seemed like cause for optimism, but his subsequent three years passed without a winning season, and he was fired with a 22-26 record. It seems the oft-referenced Spartan inferiority complex cares not for your early successes, your bowl bids, or your self-effacing attempts at atonement..
It says something that the Spartans are only 1.5-point dogs Saturday despite the respective records. Behind Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol, State has assembled the Big Ten's top passing attack in terms of yardage, and they're going up against a 92nd-ranked Michigan pass defense that was ripped by lowly Indiana. It's not as though a shootout would be anything new for either of these teams, anyway; the only difference is that Michigan State hasn't managed to win its high-scoring affairs, thanks primarily to a) a –3 turnover margin, tied for 91st in the nation, and b) a moribund rushing attack that's still struggling to find a replacement for workhorse Javon Ringer.
Given that Michigan was the team that lost nine games last year, it almost seems unfair that State is the one getting stuck with the "Can this team bounce back from mediocrity?" questions. It's particularly unfair to Dantonio, who actually has as many wins in his first 30 games at MSU as Nick Saban did. But such is the burden of being Sparty, where you're always living in the shadow of the nation's all-time winningest program. And fairly or unfairly, it's games like this one that will determine whether Dantonio is remembered as another Saban, or merely as John L. Smith with less embarrassing press conferences.