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From the 2013-15, Michigan State football boasted an impressive overall record of 36-5 and a Big Ten record of 22-2. The Spartans were sitting in the driver’s seat within the state of Michigan while battling with Ohio State for ultimate control of the Big Ten Conference.
This reality seemed hard to imagine, in a division with historical powerhouse programs like Penn State, Ohio State, and in-state rival Michigan. How had a team that had never won 11 games in its history managed to meet or exceed that mark in five of six seasons? There are multiple pieces that helped Michigan State achieve such unprecedented success, but none greater than the man at the helm: Mark Dantonio.
The now 61-year-old coach took over the Spartan football program in 2007. He inherited a team coming off three consecutive losing seasons, a team that hadn’t seen double digit win totals since Nick Saban was the Spartans coach in the 90’s. Before coming to East Lansing, Dantonio had coached the Cincinnati Bearcats for three seasons. Finishing with a rather pedestrian 19-17 record in his time there, the hire of Dantonio was far from glamorous. But the results would be more than anyone could have expected.
Dantonio helped guide the Spartans to nine consecutive bowl games to start his tenure. After losing the first four in that stretch, they picked up victories in the next four, including wins in both the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl. MSU was dubbed “Big Ten champions” three times during that span as well.
It was just two seasons ago when Michigan State found themselves in the College Football Playoff with a chance to win their first national title in nearly 50 years. Unfortunately for Dantonio & Co., they were humiliated by Alabama and their former coach, Nick Saban. After Dantonio blew off a pregame interview with the words “Don’t Flinch,” the Spartans flinched hard and received a 38-0 drubbing from the Tide.
[Few expected that loss to perhaps be a precursor to what 2016 would entail for the Spartans, but that ultimately proved to be the case. After starting off the year 2-0, they closed out the season losing nine of their final ten games. And as if the on-field performance wasn’t bad enough, things continued to get worse off the field for MSU. The program lost a number of players for a myriad of reasons in the offseason, none more noteworthy than the trio of players who were accused and later charged with sexual assault.
Now to be fair, the Spartans lost a ton of talent and depth from that 2015 team that made the Playoff. But given what Dantonio had established prior, one would be hard-pressed to find people who truly expected a 3-win follow-up season.]
As everything was crumbling for the Spartans, those three aforementioned “traditional powers” within the East Division all continued to get better.
Penn State won the division and the conference with it, finishing the season 11-3, their best season since 2009. Michigan collected 10 wins for a second consecutive season, establishing themselves back among college football’s best. Ohio State finished 11-2, continuing their recent stretch of dominance over the last decade.
Meaning collectively, those three teams lost fewer games (8) than the Spartans’ nine losses. More than just watching the competition progress as they regressed, the Spartans lost to all three of the division rivals.
All in all, last season was a bitter pill to swallow for Spartan fans and players alike. Unlike the Spartans 2012 season when they finished 7-6, last season didn’t feel like a retooling season. [There was a noticeable lack of veteran leadership and execution of fundamentals on both sides of the ball. And while the team was very young and some of those younger players, showed promise, it was not nearly enough to garner more wins.]
As the 2017 season is about to begin Mark Dantonio finds himself in a position he hasn’t experienced during his time in East Lansing: the hot seat. Just one season separates the Spartans from a Playoff appearance, but that season was as bad as they come. If the Spartans cannot finish at least .500, the rumblings about Dantonio will only grow louder.
Without the defensive genius of Narduzzi and the continued inability to use the team’s on-field to recruit elite talents., Dantonio will struggle to cool the warmth growing on his seat. The Spartans may have seen the end of the era. Wins in the Big Ten come from recruiting elite players, but despite dominating Michigan on the field over the past 8 seasons, Dantonio has never been able to out-recruit them. That reality may finally be catching up to the Spartans.
Perhaps the biggest threat to Dantonio is three opposing coaches. James Franklin, Jim Harbaugh, and Urban Meyer are all firmly established at their respective schools. Last season they all outpaced MSU on and off the field. This trio of traditional powers continues to compile some of the best recruiting classes every year and appear to be back to their regular winning ways on the field.
And with the scandals that struck Ohio State and Penn State in the rear view mirror, and the Rich Rodriguez days of Michigan almost forgotten, Dantonio will not have help bringing these programs down, he will have to do it himself.
Can Dantonio keep up with these powerful programs and elite coaches? Last season’s 3-9 failure is a season worse than Franklin, Harbaugh, or Meyer have ever led as coaches. It isn’t far-fetched to believe that the 61-year-old Dantonio has fulfilled his time in East Lansing. After an offseason of arrests, there seem to be cracks in what has been a very sturdy Spartan ship for the better part of a decade.
On the field and off, the Spartans had a very rough year.
Despite all the issues, it isn’t too late. Dantonio can right the sinking ship. He has drawn comparisons to the 2013 team that reached the Rose Bowl with this year’s bunch. Even returning to a bowl game will secure Dantonio another season as the Spartans coach, but if this season ends with only three or four wins, should the Spartans sit on their hands, as division rivals continue to get farther ahead? Or will it be time for a new head coach in East Lansing?
Sharing territory with Michigan and Ohio State has nearly always left the Spartans in the shadows. The last eight years have been an exception to the majority of 100 years of college football history. Dantonio once brought the Spartans from ashes, to glory. If he can’t do it again, the green and white will have to look for someone who can.