Look at the history of Michigan State football, and as ye gaze uponst it, remember this: the program is situated, geographically, adjacent to three of the most storied programs in college football history (Michigan, Ohio State, and Notre Dame). From 1990 — when they won the Sun Bowl — until 2008 (when they lost the Capital One Bowl), they only finished a season ranked once (1999, under Nick Saban). From 1965 to 1984, they didn’t appear in a bowl game. During that same span, Ohio State appeared in eight Rose Bowls, Michigan appeared in seven, and Notre Dame won three national championships. The Spartan program was playing from behind, but in the mid-to-late-1990s, they had a nice little dance with a man who would become the pre-eminent college coach of his generation — only he did it in another state and another conference.
But lo and behold, the Spartans are 40-12 in their last four seasons. Their current coach has won double digit games three times — Nicky Saban never did that in East Lansing — and this year, they’re 11-1 and allowing 11.8 PPG. Their one loss was by four points, to the aforementioned Fighting Irish, and had a lot to do with defensive pass interference penalties. They’re No. 10 in the BCS right now — so even with a win this Saturday night, they won’t be heading to the BCS Championship Game — but their coach insists “Why not us?” when asked about the championship. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Mark Dantonio. On the Saturday after the crazy Saturday — the one we all hope will be just as crazy, because in the world of college football, we love it when stuff doesn’t make sense — Mr. Dantonio might be your savior.
Despite what some think and whatever happens today with Jameis Winston, Duke probably won’t beat FSU on Saturday. Thus, No. 1 will stay No. 1. Put FSU into the BCS Championship — maybe use a slightly darker pencil, but still, put them there. So now we turn to No. 2, the Ohio State Buckeyes. They haven’t lost since the 2012 Gator Bowl, when Luke Fickell was running the show. But in that time, their two closest games have been Michigan this year — again, from the craziest Saturday — and Michigan State last year, which they only won 17-16.
(It is true that OSU went to overtime with both Purdue and Wisconsin in 2012, but technically they won each of those games by a TD; by straight margin of victory, the OSU-MSU game and the OSU-UM game were the closest.)
So here’s where we stand: FSU probably won’t lose, but OSU is facing a team that almost beat them last September, a mere week after one of their more inconsistent performances of this year. Hmmmmmm. MSU had 15 returning starters this year, and OSU had 13, so the personnel is vaguely similar.
The next tier of the discussion is about Meyer. Guy has been an amazing coach — 128-23 since 2001 — but is dogged by questionable ethics, the team’s arrest record at Florida, and the sometimes-sanctimonious way he discusses his “family contract:”
In addition, the relationship between Meyer and Dantonio is purportedly a bit chilly. Meyer’s predecessor was Jim Tressel, who used to be the head coach above Dantonio at OSU (yep, Dantonio was an OSU assistant). Tressel and Dantonio had a strong relationship. Meyer? Not so much. When he got the OSU job, he poached Se’Von Pittman, a defensive end who had committed to MSU. MSU’s staff groused about it and about relationships within college football, and Meyer reportedly responded with:
“You’re pissed because we went after a committed guy? Guess what? We’ve got nine (coaches) who better go do it again. Do it a little harder next time.”
So here’s the basic breakdown: presumed good guy vs. presumed potential douchebag, one program that hasn’t been to a Rose Bowl since 1988 vs. one program that hasn’t lost since January 2012, two guys that don’t love each other, trip to the BCS Championship on the line, and … oh, are you having fun yet? Even the basic building models of the program are different; this is a great read on Dantonio and how he looks for “fit” because of the marquee nature of programs all around him. Indeed, OSU is No. 6 in the 2014 Rivals rankings (highest Big 10 school) and Michigan State is No. 36; Meyer has 12 four-star guys signed. Dantonio has 1. On the field, it may not matter.
That brings us to the bigger football question: can MSU actually win this game? The Buckeyes score 48 PPG — third in America — and rush for 321 yards a game — second in America. MSU doesn’t have that kind of firepower, although Connor Cook has been quietly pretty strong. The thing is, though, the defense will keep it close — defense always matters more in big spot games than offense does — and Dantonio has some significant cajones in big spots:
Or this, which is less stones and more just going for it:
Let’s be real: if FSU and OSU both trounce on Saturday night, that’s boring. For a year that contained LSU-UGA, A&M-Alabama, Alabama-Auburn, Auburn-UGA, Stanford-Oregon, USC-Stanford, etc, that’s not a fitting way for the final almost-full Saturday to go out. It needs to go out with drama. The more likely source of that drama is Sparty and Mr. Dantonio. Can they do it and climb that Rose Bowl mountain? I honestly think they can. How, exactly? Defense, limited turnovers, and the home run ball once in a while. But what about stopping Braxton Miller? It’ll be hard, but … ah, f*ck it, “NEXT QUESTION.”