Stadium: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, MI
When They Play Terps: November 15, at Maryland (8 PM)
Often a bridesmaid, but never a bride. – Listerine commercial, 1925
This is Michigan State. Everything they do and anything that’s occurred over their history will always pale in comparison to their older brother to the southeast, Michigan. The two schools are only a couple hours away but they’re half a world apart. Smaller stadium, smaller win total, worse academics, less prestige…not Ann Arbor. Don’t believe me? Here’s a quote:
At Michigan State, we were never No. 1; that was always Michigan. It was always U-M this or that. – Nick Saban
Despite having played football since 1896, Michigan State’s history really only starts during the 1949-50 season, which would be the first one in which they actively competed in the Big Ten. The Spartans and their Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey Big Head cheat code mascot Sparty were independents before that, and from 1896 till they joined were relatively average. Then came 1951.
In 1951, Michigan State had one foot in the Big Ten and one foot out; they weren’t counted in the standings and couldn’t participate in postseason play, but they were technically in the conference. They finished 9-0 and technically should have won that damn conference, but they didn’t. They also very well could have won a national championship that year (and the season after that), but the Maryland Terrapins and Tennessee Volunteers all ended up with a share of it, so no one was officially recognized because the NCAA is a joke.
I tell you about those two seasons, 1951 and 1952, because the Spartans looked like the sneakiest big pickup ever when they first joined the Big Ten. They weren’t just coming in as a successful team, they were edgy, too. The Spartans had the first ever black Big Ten (and eventually, NFL) quarterback in Willie Thrower, two straight undefeated seasons under their belts, and a Hall of Fame coach in Clarence Munn. And when they were full participants in 1953, they did what everyone should have expected them to do to the Big Ten: they rolled everyone. 9-1 record (5-1 in conference play) and tied for first in the Big Ten; a Rose Bowl victory over UCLA; third place ranking nationally. Think about that: the Big Ten added the best team in the country to their conference.
And they continued on with that success, too. Over the next 13 seasons they went 82-35 with back-to-back national championships in 1965 and 1966 thanks to college football Hall of Famer Duffy Daugherty. They did wallow in misery over the next twenty seasons, though, from 1967 to 1987 and never made a Rose Bowl again during that span. Part of that was due to Daugherty staying around a little too long, and part of that was the sheer level of incompetency they had at the coaching position after him.
Denny Stolz (19-13), Darryl Rodgers (the coach who once famously asked “What’s a coach got to do to get fired around here?”), Muddy Waters (amazing player, brutal coach who compiled a 10-23 record over 3 years), and finally…George Perles.
Perles is one of the bigger reasons why Michigan State has spent more time on probation than all but three college football programs. For most, it doesn’t matter that he won the last outright conference title for Michigan State in the pre-championship era and won the Rose Bowl in 1988. He was at the helm while the cheating was going on (grade tampering), which resulted in sanctions from the NCAA.
It wasn’t just Perles though, because Michigan State is (when judged against everyone else) just plain dirty. From steroid use to win games, to playing dirtier than Michigan in their rivalry game, to probation after probation dating back a long way. Obviously part of that is just perception, but they’re the ones getting caught which means they are A) too dumb to do it the right way and B) still officially cheating more than others.
Nick Saban had to deal with the sanctions himself when he was coach back in 1999, and that was part of the reason (along with a boatload of money from LSU) to leave. Michigan State and Michigan both had the same record back in ’99 and the Spartans beat the Wolverines on national television, but UM got the Orange Bowl BCS bid while MSU had to hit up the Citrus Bowl.
Eventually, their current head coach Mark Dantonio (who served as a DB coach under Saban at Michigan State) took the helm, and the Spartans look revitalized to their previous historical success. He’s beaten Michigan five out of the last six seasons, taken them to seven straight bowl games, won Big Ten Coach of the Year twice, and got to the Rose Bowl last year during a 13-1 season. By all accounts Dantonio has the Spartans trending upward.
But they’re still not Michigan, and still play second fiddle in the eyes of both Michigan and Ohio State fans. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
Why they could be good: These Spartans are legion, for they are many
Connor Cook and his Big Ten + Rose Bowl MVP awards return for the Michigan State Spartans, as does Jeremy Langford and his 1,422 yards rushing to go along with 18 touchdowns. Those two combined with serious depth at wide receiver give Michigan a fighting chance in every single game. They’re balanced, experienced, and proven winners who get the benefit of an offensive line that returns five starters on a unit that gave up 17 total sacks last year.
Cook is looking like Kirk Cousins 2.0 lately, and that’s thanks to throwing to guys who could be 1,000 yard players on another team. Senior Tony Lippett is the most consistent player of the bunch, but juniors Aaron Burbridge, DeAnthony Arnett and Macgarrett Kings Jr. are all capable of exacting damage in their own right.
And that’s just the offensive side of the ball, because the defensive unit that led the nation in all four major statistical categories brings back half of their starters. Reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Shilique Calhoun and fourth-year starter Marcus Rush give Michigan State one of the best rushes in the country, and they replaced the starters beside them with five-star recruits Malik McDowell and Craig Evans.
All in all, Michigan State should do just fine despite a tough schedule.
Why they could be bad: That defense lost a lot, and it’s Michigan State
Michigan State lost cornerback Darqueze Dennard from last year, and that’s going to hurt them. Their linebackers are all question marks (especially with Taiwan Jones changing positions) and the defensive line might slip a bit. Narduzzi, their defensive coordinator, is really a head coach that’s just hanging out as an assistant for now, so they should be fine. But not everything goes as planned.
Then there’s the fact that Michigan State is the top dog here. They beat Ohio State and they sit atop the Big Ten in wanting one of those four playoff spots. But that means everyone else is going after them now. Nebraska is going to want to beat them at home, as is Michigan, as is Ohio State. Those three are going to really challenge the Spartans, and couple that with road games against Oregon and Penn State, and there’s room for a couple slip ups.
Prediction: The Spartans win the Big Ten