Stanford, Michigan State show substance is still paramount in college football

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The Rose Bowl matchup between Stanford and Michigan State is a good one. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense.

In theory and on paper, the Rose Bowl should be the annual playground of Ohio State and Michigan from the Big Ten, USC and Oregon from the Pac-12. It should belong to the programs with the biggest bucks, best facilities, most prestige and longest tradition. The schools five-star recruits can’t wait to hear from and commit to.

But here are the Cardinal and the Spartans, impressive and unequivocal champions of their leagues, playing in the 100th Rose Bowl on Wednesday afternoon. It’s a joint triumph of leadership, prospect identification, player development, and program identity. It’s a refusal to believe in an established pecking order that doesn’t include them, no matter how unlikely their presence at the top of said order may be. It’s a refutation of fad football, as two programs built on defense and power eschew the allure of uptempo offense and scoreboard orgies.

It’s Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, stubbornly saying before the Big Ten championship game that the Spartans should be included in the national championship conversation with one loss – then going out and playing like a championship contender in an upset of the Buckeyes. It’s Stanford coach David Shaw, establishing blunt-force ownership of flashy Oregon and insisting his school can have it all – brainiacs who compete for national titles.

No, it shouldn’t be happening like this. But when you turn on your TV to see the golden afternoon sunlight slanting into the iconic stadium near the San Gabriel Mountains on Wednesday, that’s where these two striver programs will be.

For 11-2 Stanford, this is now a five-year trend of improbable excellence – rising at the very time a lot of people were giving up on the idea of an academically rigorous super power. This is their first run of five straight winning seasons since 1974-78, and that pales in comparison to the high points of this streak. The Cardinal is appearing in its fourth straight BCS bowl and has won at least 11 games a year over the past four.

The program has come so far, so fast under Jim Harbaugh and now Shaw, it’s almost like Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris never happened.

“For us this being our fourth BCS game in a row, it starts with people,” Shaw said this week. “I think we've got great coaches that understand Stanford and understand the game of football. You have to understand both. But I also think it comes down to the kids that we have. Flying these young men from around the nation who were nationally recruited, kids that fit Stanford University on the football field and in the classroom, finding tough kids and smart kids. But I give a lot of credit to these seniors, the kids that came in four or five years ago wanting to establish something at Stanford. There have been peaks and valleys in Stanford football. The goal was to build something that could stay, and those guys are a big part of that.”

Stanford has shown its staying power. So, too, has Michigan State.

Even factoring in a 7-6 dud last season, the Spartans are having their best four-year run since the Biggie Munn days of the early 1950s. Dantonio has gone 41-12 in that time, and he’s beaten Michigan five of the last six years. That goes a long way in East Lansing, even as Dantonio works to raise the program above and beyond a Wolverine obsession.

He was asked this week about a six-year-old comment with staying power, when Michigan running back Mike Hart referred to the Spartans as the Wolverines’ “little brother.” Dantonio, who can be a first-class churl with the media when he wants to be, responded, “That really has nothing to do with this today. Next question, please.”

Dantonio knows that the big breakthrough in today’s Big Ten is taking down Ohio State. When the Spartans did that in Indianapolis on Dec. 7, ending the Buckeyes’ 24-game winning streak, it busted the myth that Urban Meyer had catapulted his program out of reach from the rest of a struggling league. Now it must be said that the Big Ten is more than just one quality team.

“We weren't ranked in the top 25 until sometime the end of October,” Dantonio said after beating the Buckeyes. “So this is a football team that's earned its way. We've not backed into any games. We didn't back into this championship game. We're not backing into the Rose Bowl. We're going in there the right way.”

In the college football hierarchy, coaches who have success at the Stanfords and Michigan States of the world move on. Ty Willingham took the Cardinal to the 2001 Rose Bowl, then bolted for Notre Dame – the beginning of the end of his coaching career. Harbaugh jumped to the NFL, something 1970s coaches John Ralston and Bill Walsh did as well. Nick Saban fled the Spartans for LSU, on his way to becoming the greatest college coach of the modern era.

Dantonio just finished his seventh year at Michigan State, and nobody is talking about him looking to upgrade. He has an athletic director in Mark Hollis who is committed to keeping him, the same way he has kept basketball coach Tom Izzo for an extended run of excellence.

Shaw, who has been considered a hot NFL candidate, says he is staying put as well (for now). Shaw grew up with Stanford football – his father, Willie, was an assistant there while he was in high school; then he played there and was an assistant to Harbaugh before taking over. That may be enough to turn it into a destination job.

So maybe these improbable power programs are ready for an extended run at the top of their respective conferences. Maybe this fresh heavyweight matchup will become more routine in the years to come. Maybe, in a world where the Rose Bowl is supposed to be the province of the rich and traditional programs, a Stanford-Michigan State showdown makes sense after all.

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