Tag Archives: Mark Dantonio

Why is Michigan State Afraid of Success?

For a three-year span, Michigan State was one of the best schools in the Big Ten and even the country. The Spartans racked up a record of 36-5 over that span including two Big Ten Championships and one playoff berth. That’s a pretty impressive resume no matter what conference your school plays in.

So, what the heck happened?

There were signs of it in 2015. It took a fluke blocked punt for them to beat Michigan, close wins against Purdue and Rutgers, and then finally an absolute destruction by Alabama in the playoffs. That was before the wheels really came off in 2016 with more losses (nine) than they’d had in the previous three years. If you didn’t watch it, it was ugly.

Really it comes down to one thing: why is Michigan State afraid of success?

College football is a game of adaptation. The game changes and if you don’t change with it, you’re going to be left in the dust. Unless you have the absolute top talent like Nick Saban, you need to change with the times.

Michigan State had a crop of very talented players but all of them, including a very underappreciated quarterback in Connor Cook, left after the 2015 season. Most coaches would adapt their coaching schemes to what was left but not Mark Dantonio and his staff. They continued to run the same schemes that they ran with a quarterback that had NFL potential. The starter in 2016, Tyler O’Connor, did not have that type of talent but they kept asking him to try and make those same throws.

You know what good coaches do when things change? They adapt. Look at Urban Meyer at Ohio State. Lose your Heisman candidate quarterback to injury? Replace him with another Heisman candidate and then replace him when he’s injured all the way to a National Championship.

Now hold up you’re probably saying. You’re probably thinking that I’m just some Michigan slappy who’s hating on Michigan State because come on, didn’t Michigan just revert to the offense that they ran in the 80’s? The sure did but Jim Harbaugh has that top level of talent like Saban and Alabama.

Besides, there’s more than one way to adapt.

The coaching game has changed and Michigan State is not keeping up. Maybe they don’t want to spend the money or maybe Dantonio is more concerned with making his friends happy but look at his coaching staff. Look at his defensive coordinator, Harlon Barnett. Barnett has been with Dantonio since 2004. Yes, there were some good years in there so clearly, he makes a lot of money, right? That’s why no one has managed to swipe him yet, right?

Funny story there: he actually made less money than Drew Mehringer who was the Rutgers offensive coordinator in 2016. Yes, that Rutgers. The one that went 2-10. That team pays their coaches better than the winner of two of the last four Big Ten Championships. So, he makes less than coordinators at terrible schools and no one has bought his services. Kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it? Meanwhile, Oregon and Michigan were competing to hire Michael Johnson mostly because they thought it would help their respective schools land his prospect son.

Speaking of recruiting, that battlefield has changed as well. You have the above-mentioned battle to hire a single coach in the hopes of landing a 2019 prospect and you have, of course, satellite camps. Made famous by the probably insane Jim Harbaugh, you knew they were a good idea when the SEC tried to get them outlawed. You know who’s bringing in top recruiting classes? Not Michigan State who didn’t host or take part in any of them.

So, let’s tally up that scorecard again:

  • Not adapting to player talent
  • Not hiring top coaches
  • Not adapting to the new recruiting world.

That’s not a recipe for success. Dantonio is promoting the guys that are loyal to him even though guys like offensive coordinator Dave Warner are showing that they are basically incompetent in their roles. Being loyal to your friends is good but this is a business and if he’s not willing to put money into it, he’s going to find himself looking for another job pretty soon against what might be 2017’s hardest schedule.

Him and his friends.

E-mail Tim at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @tbach84.

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A Storm Is Brewing At Michigan State And No One Is Paying Attention

Remember Baylor? Remember how up in arms everyone was and still is about the allegations that continue coming out? Coaches and players were swept up in the investigations and the public was outraged, and rightly so. Sexual assaults are not something to be messed around with. Even the allegations can get players suspended and coaches fired for just asking for due process, just ask former Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys.

So why is Michigan State getting a pass?

Despite what some people might think, this isn’t me being a Michigan fan and wanting a rival to be tanked and punished. This is me wondering why everything that’s going on in East Lansing is flying so low under the radar.

Let’s recap: three players that have yet to be identified were suspended amidst claims of a sexual assault. Six days later, a member of the Michigan State coaching staff is suspended. The school declined to comment on why Curtis Blackwell, the football program’s director of college advancement and performance, was suspended. But come on. He gets suspended less than a week after an investigation starts into some players? We know why he was suspended even though it hasn’t been made official.

It escalated to the Michigan State police filing for four warrants, three for the unnamed players and one for a fourth person who is being charged with obstructing the investigation. Now Mark Dantonio is not allowing the press to go to the spring football scrimmage. That’s a very stark departure from the normally open Michigan State procedures.

But you guys, it’s ok. Tom Izzo says he supports the school leadership. Cancel everything, we’re all good here.

The one thing that Michigan State does have going for it is that the school made a point to get out in front of this. They suspended the players and got them off campus despite not releasing any information about any of them. With the exception of whoever is being issued a warrant for obstructing the investigation, they’ve made a point to seemingly do the right thing.

Well… there’s this other thing, though. Dr. Larry Nassar is currently under investigation for criminal sexual conduct. He was the Michigan State and USA women’s gymnastics team doctor.

22 new charges were just filed against Nassar and now it’s up to 80 different women claiming that he violated them. There have been charges filed against Nassar for more than 20 years.

Think about that. There have been complaints of sexual abuse filed to Michigan State for almost as long as some of the Campus Pressbox writers have been alive.

Now go back and look at this Michigan State football thing from a different perspective. How in the world can we trust this administration to do what actually needs to be done now? Mark Hollis has been the athletic director at Michigan State since 2008. A police report was filed in 2014 alleging this misconduct so combine that with multiple complaints in 2004 and why did no one look at this?

Once everything started to go public, Nassar was fired. That’s all well and good but why not sooner? At this point, I’m having trouble accepting that the school is doing what’s right for absolutely anyone except for the school.

Contrary to what they might believe, universities have a responsibility to all students instead of just the athletes and what’s good for the athletic programs.

I hope this all goes smoothly. I hope it comes out that Mark Dantonio knew nothing about the football players or Blackwell. I even hope that Hollis was somehow clueless about what a piece of scum Nassar is. Even if it does, we need to hold them to the fire every bit as much as we did to Baylor and Penn State. Only when these schools are really held responsible are they going to step up and do something about all this violence.

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Is the Big Ten Better Than the SEC Right Now?

It’s the age-old question that college football fans from the North and South love to quibble over because who doesn’t want to have bragging rights that their conference is undisputedly, top-to-bottom the best college football has to offer? Some say it’s still the SEC because Alabama won the national title this past season and is in prime position to claim it again in January. They also point to the depth and competitive balance of the conference and say its teams as a collective whole are a better product. At least they don’t have Rutgers or Maryland. Sigh. Fair enough.

However, others believe there’s been a shift in conference supremacy and that the Big Ten has surpassed the SEC with its coaching and quarterbacks.

Back in 2010, Auburn became the fourth SEC school to win a national title in five seasons and the league featured five national championship-winning coaches in Nick Saban, Les Miles, Urban Meyer, Steve Spurrier and Gene Chizik. In addition, James Franklin arrived at Vanderbilt, Mark Richt had won two league titles at Georgia and Bobby Petrino led a solid Arkansas program. Fast forward to the end of the 2016 season. Out of those eight coaches, Saban is the only one who remains and the SEC athletic directors have replaced those championship-caliber coaches with unproven leaders who have struggled.

Now, it’s the Big Ten that’s filled with solid coaching commodities, from Meyer building a powerhouse at Ohio State to Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, Paul Chryst at Wisconsin, and Franklin at Penn State. Moreover, Mark Dantonio, Kirk Ferentz and Pat Fitzgerald have been fixtures of stability at their respective programs. And don’t forget in the only regular Big Ten-SEC matchup this season, even with lesser talent and by far, much less expectations, Wisconsin led by Chryst in just his second year, outcoached an LSU team that had national title aspirations and was headed by the SEC’s second-best coach, Les Miles.

In terms of quarterbacks, I think it’s safe to say this year, the Big Ten’s signal callers were better. While he wasn’t Heisman Trophy-caliber worthy as once expected, J.T. Barrett was still really solid, as well as Trace McSorley, Wilton Speight and Clayton Thorson. However, for the SEC, with its consistent misses under center, more of its teams have been searching for the easy fix, courting junior college players and graduate transfers hoping to get a Russell Wilson. But instead, they’ve found John Franklin III and Greyson Lambert. The number of transfers being used at SEC schools is incredible. I find it even more ironic that the SEC gets all the high-profile, five-star quarterback recruits and are using Purdue rejects at flagship schools. Danny Etling won the LSU job and Austin Appleby guided Florida.

There are valid points to the argument the Big Ten is better than the SEC, and depending on how you look at it, the conference just may be better. But as much as it pains me to say it as I’m a staunch Big Ten supporter, I find it hard to make an argument that our conference is clearly above-and-beyond better than the SEC. Right now while there is more parity in the Big Ten at the top and it has more high-ranked teams than the SEC with four teams finishing in the top eight of the final College Football Playoff rankings, the bottom half of the conference really brings down the Big Ten compared to the SEC and hurts the Big Ten’s depth.

Bottom line is the SEC as of today owns the national title and to me, it’s all about the hardware. Could that change in a few weeks? Absolutely. But as for now, as of today, I’d give the edge to the SEC…just barely.

E-mail Mike at  or follow him on Twitter @MDeuces2051.

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Michigan State: The End Of An Era

It was a nice run but it’s over.

Michigan State had a fun time in the limelight but now it’s time to go. The premier programs in the Mitten State are now the University of Michigan and Western Michigan. So long Spartans, have fun battling it out with Rutgers to not be in the last place in the East.

I’m sure you might think that I’m overreacting just a touch. I am known to do that from time to time but this time, not so much. Sometimes I do know what I’m talking about and this is one of those time.

After a disastrous 3-7 season, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio had his end of the season press conference and dropped a couple of surprise bombs on the press. The biggest surprise is that he plans to make no coaching changes and plans to make no changes in responsibilities on his staff. Look, Dantonio had a good run and is still a pretty good coach but this is a dumb decision.

Yes, this is the same coaching staff that won a Big Ten title and made an appearance in the College Football Playoff but look at the talent that was on that team. Most notably, there was an NFL-caliber quarterback in Connor Cook. A good quarterback can make an average offensive coordinator look a lot better. Cook had the ability to scramble and the accuracy to go downfield. That let him bail the Spartans out of a lot of unfortunate situations.

Now look at what offensive play caller Dave Warner did with this year’s starter, Tyler O’Connor. Less than 2000 yards with 16 scores and nine picks while losing his starting spot. Sure, he did get it back but that’s because no one was any better. Warner continued to call the same kind of plays he did with Cook and guess what? They didn’t work.

Here’s an interesting way to gauge what Warner is worth. How much do you think he’s paid? Warner makes less than $450,000 which puts him at the 129th highest paid coordinator. Lane Kiffin who just left Alabama was making $1.5 million. Michigan’s offensive coordinator makes almost double what Warner makes at $850,000. Greg Mattison coaches the defensive line at Michigan for $500,000.

So what’s it mean?

It means that Michigan State isn’t willing to pony up and get a really good coordinator. If you want to be taken seriously as a national power, you have to have an outstanding coordinator. You can’t continue to promote from within. Is it going to work sometimes? Sure, sometimes you’ve got that coach in waiting that you can seamlessly transition in. Then there are coaches like Michigan State has.

The easiest way to say it is that Michigan State has gotten complacent. This is how they’ve done it in the past and dammit, they’re going to do it that way from here on out. What worked before is going to work again because that’s how things work.

Well, college football is an evolving game. Remember when the spread offense was new and innovative? Now almost every program has run either the spread or some variation of it. Even the super traditional Alabama has a running quarterback in Jalen Hurts now.

Tying this all back to the beginning, maybe this is why Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck didn’t leave Western Michigan. Maybe he can see the same thing myself and everyone but Mark Dantonio can see. Dantonio’s contract is up in 2020 if he can make it that long. As a Michigan fan, I kind of hope we don’t see Fleck rowing his boat to East Lansing though.

E-mail Tim at .

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Michigan State Must Adapt or Perish

After a resounding defeat to Wisconsin that no one saw coming, there are some questions to be answered in East Lansing.

Will Michigan State survive?

Yes, it was conceivable that the Spartans could lose to Wisconsin, but no one expected them to be held to a pair of field goals in a route. The Badgers managed to stifle Michigan State in all aspects of the game. The much-heralded run game was held to a collective 75 yards and a fumble if you include scrambles by quarterback Tyler O’Connor. Speaking of O’Connor, he was held to 224 yards in the air and picked off three times. It wasn’t pretty in case you haven’t picked up on that one yet.

So, what was the problem with Michigan State?

Well, the problem is that they took Connor Cook for granted for all those years.

People questioned his leadership skills and made a big deal of the fact that he wasn’t elected to be a captain his senior season, but there’s no denying that Connor Cook was a very good quarterback. He could throw from the pocket, throw on the move, and most importantly, throw it accurately. Short throws, long throws, he could make them all. If Michigan State got down, Cook had the arm to carry them back.

Michigan State doesn’t have that in Tyler O’Connor and they haven’t adapted their play calling to reflect that. Co-offensive coordinator and play caller, Dave Warner, is still calling plays like he has an NFL-caliber quarterback leading his team. Maybe O’Connor will be that one day, but he certainly isn’t now.

That’s pretty lazy on Warner’s part. What’s the one thing that coaches have to do? They have to match their schemes to the players they have. Not the other way around. A heavy-footed pocket passer shouldn’t be running the spread and a guy who struggles with accuracy shouldn’t be asked to throw the ball 38 times like O’Connor was against Wisconsin.

O’Connor has arm strength. There’s no debating that. He was chucking it up and down the field, but he doesn’t have the accuracy to be doing that. Connor Cook could drop a 50-yard pass right in the receiver’s hands. O’Connor is missing them by several yards in all directions.

The only positive Michigan State highlight in this entire video was a catch by Josiah Price, and it was almost the only catch that a Spartan receiver didn’t have to jump or lunge for. They were making circus catches and attempts because O’Connor was so off-target.

That’s on Dave Warner again. It’s his job to put O’Connor in a position to succeed because he’s not the kind of quarterback that can pass his way back into a game. That’s what he was asked to do and he clearly wasn’t capable. If your quarterback can’t throw downfield accurately, you don’t ask him to do so. Use short passes and dink-and-dunk your way down the field. Do anything but what Michigan State did.

The Spartans are going to have to figure out how to adapt their offense because teams are just going to load the box and say “Come at me, bros.” As the luster of the win against Notre Dame continues to fade, teams with good cornerbacks will just dare Michigan State to throw the ball. You know who has some good corners? Michigan and Ohio State. You know who plays in the same division as Michigan State? Michigan and Ohio State.

Now Mark Dantonio, whom I respect a lot, is going to continue to tell his players that all their goals are still in front of them and that they can still win their conference. He has to say that, but we all know better now. The way they’re playing right now, they’re quickly headed for an 8-4 season at best and not the kind of bowl game they’re used to be playing in.

The time is now, Michigan State. Either adapt your game plan or we’ll see you next year.

E-mail Tim at [email protected].

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Pride Comes Before the Fall for Michigan State

If there’s any school out there in the Big Ten that’s allowed to be a little cranky about things, it’s Michigan State. They were honestly pretty bad for most of the 80s and 90s and even into the 2000s, with the exception of a couple good seasons. Even the mighty Nick Saban could only get nine wins out of the Spartans once, before he bolted to LSU to win a national title three years later.

Really until Mark Dantonio arrived in 2007 the Spartans didn’t have much going for them. They had to endure the “Little Brother” remark from Mike Hart which still endures to this day. Even now that the Spartans are competing with Ohio State to be the class of the Big Ten, they’re overlooked for their in-state rivals.

Dantonio has lead Michigan State to two of the last three Big Ten titles and an appearance in the College Football Playoffs last season, and yet Sports Illustrated can’t get his first name right.

All anyone wants to talk about is Jim Harbaugh and Michigan. Dantonio won’t say it but it clearly annoys him something fierce.

You don’t think so?

One of the favorite sayings of legendary coach Bo Schembechler was “Those who stay will be champions.” It’s built into the legends of Michigan and highly touted as almost an unofficial slogan.

What’s this got to do with Michigan State? One of the Spartan staffers tweeted out a picture of all the team’s players who come from Detroit. The slogan on the photo,“Those who have stayed are already champions.”

Now, I’d like to preface some things first.

First off, I think Mark Dantonio is a great coach and all around a good person. He took a team that was down in the dumps and made it relevant again after years of being irrelevant. That’s not easy to do no matter the conference you’re in and especially not for a guy with two years head coaching experience under his belt. I respect what he’s done and so should everyone else.

That being said, I have two things to say to Coach Dantonio and the Michigan State people that put that photo together.

The first is that pride comes before the fall.

The University of Michigan was awfully arrogant after their win in 2007, I get that. The fan base has always been arrogant. They got what was coming to them when Rich Rodriguez came to town and then again at the end of the Brady Hoke tenure. They had some downs and now they’re coming back up.

Right after Mike Hart made those comments is when Michigan started to take its dive. Everyone ran with it and made fun of Michigan for laughing at Michigan State before losing all but one meeting since then. So think about that.

Michigan State just graduated Connor Cook, the school’s all-time leader in passing touchdowns, passing yards and total offensive yards. Just like in 2007 when Michigan graduated quarterback Chad Henne, there’s no heir apparent. There’s no guy to step in and carry an offense that also graduated its best lineman in Jack Conklin.

Any way you slice it, Michigan State made a bold jab at its biggest rival after losing a lot of talented players. A lot of talented players that only defeated Michigan on a flukey dropped punt after being outplayed for the whole game. You’ve set the table for yourself now, Michigan State.

The second thing I’d like to say is if you don’t want to be treated like the little brother, don’t act like the little brother.

I’m the younger of two siblings so yes, this is exactly something we would do. A younger sibling would find something that was important to their older sibling and find a way to twist it to their own purposes. We can’t have the original so we have to come up with some kind of mockery that we purport to be better. We’re kind of evil creatures like that.

You don’t see Ohio State doing anything like that. They don’t take historic statements to create locker room material. Michigan doesn’t do that with Ohio State, either. You’ve got to be pretty desperate if you’re stooping to that level and that’s usually what the younger sibling is, desperate.

Technically what the picture says is true. Everyone but the incoming freshmen at Michigan State have won a Big Ten Championship. That’s impressive any way you slice it but there was probably a better way to have used that statistic.

About a year ago, Mike Hart said in an interview that he regretted making the “Little Brother” comment and that it was a heat of the moment thing. This was clearly very thought out. Maybe in another couple years, we’ll get an interview with Dantonio or at least this staffer talking about regretting posting this picture.

E-mail Tim at tim 

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The Dark-Horse Candidates for the 2016 College Football Playoffs

Conference media days are heating up as we venture into the heat of August. That also means that we are not only closer to summer college football camp but we are also closer to the games actually kicking off. I do not know about you, but I am ready to do this 2016 season!

As I day dream about what 2016 will bring, I find myself thinking about the College Football Playoff and who may be some of the surprise, dark-horse teams that could be in contention for one of the four coveted spots.

Here are the teams from each of the Power 5 conferences that I believe could be dark-horse contenders for the playoff.

SEC

Bret Bielema’s Arkansas Razorbacks are my dark-horse pick from the SEC. Bielema has been in Fayetteville long enough that his system should be considered established. That means that he has “his” players in place to go along with his system.

His roster is littered with established players on both sides of the ball. This includes a knowledgeable and capable quarterback in Austin Allen, a beast of an offensive lineman in Dan Skipper, a stud of a running back in Kody Walker and a top tier wide receiver in Keon Hatcher.

The defensive side of the ball may not be quite on par with Bielema’s offensive depth chart but there are known commodities on the defensive line with Taiwan Johnson and Bijhon Jackson.

And let us not forget that they have an advantageous schedule. At least it is as advantageous as an SEC West team could hope for. They have a great resume building opportunity with a non-conference road game against TCU and then get Alabama, Ole Miss, LSU and Florida all in Fayetteville.

The ingredients are there for a surprise playoff run.

Pac-12

The Pac-12 could be the year of the pirate. That is right, Washington State with head coach Mike Leach is my pick for the Pac-12’s dark-horse playoff team.

Wazzu is my pick for no other reason than quarterback Luke Falk. Falk can sling the ball around in a wide open offense as he guides a Cougar offense that should outwork scoreboards across the conference. They are not one of the best teams in the conference, but with Falk and Leach, they will put enough pressure on opposing teams that they should be a threat to the conference.

The Cougars play Oregon, UCLA, Arizona, California, and Washington all in Pullman. Their toughest road game will be at Arizona State and they do not have to deal with USC.

If Leach’s Cougars play even a little defense, this team will be a handful week in and week out.

Big 12

Most of my fellow writers at Campus Pressbox are probably expecting me to select Texas as my dark-horse playoff contender from the Big 12, but, not so fast, my pick here is Oklahoma State

Mike Gundy will not only have a talented roster that is led by quarterback Mason Rudolph, but he will also have a schedule that is beyond favorable. All three of the Cowboys’ non-conference games will be played in Stillwater. If this were not enough, the Cowboys also welcome Texas, West Virginia, and Texas Tech all to Stillwater. All three of those opponents could be considered dark-horse candidates and Oklahoma State gets them all in Stillwater.

ACC

It would be easy to choose Louisville simply because they play a beast of a non-conference opponent when the go on the road to play Marshall. My omission of Louisville as my ACC dark-horse playoff candidate should not be taken as a show of disrespect to the Thundering Herd.

My ACC dark-horse is Miami. Everyone seemed to pick Georgia each year to with the SEC East with Mark Richt, so it is only fitting to go with Miami here. Surely Richt will not bring his system of bitter disappointment to the ACC, will he?

Richt will have talent in Miami, because, well, it is Miami and talent was never the problem for the Hurricanes. As a first year Miami head coach, Richt should have the players and fans energized and the team will play enough of its high profile games at home as they host Florida State, North Carolina, and Duke.

It will not be easy for Miami, but it will not be easy for any team who is considered a dark-horse candidate for the playoffs.

Big Ten

As someone who gets labeled as “another SEC homer,” it pains me to say this, but the Big Ten is going to be Murderer’s Row this year. Each time that I wanted to make a particular team my choice as the Big Ten dark-horse, I looked at their schedule. Brutal.

So with that said, I am considering any team not named Michigan or Ohio State to be in consideration as my Big Ten dark-horse. And Michigan State is my pick.

From a personnel perspective, the Spartans may have the most questions of the teams I have chosen in this article. However, they do have LJ Scott at running back, are still coached by Mark Dantonio and have as favorable a schedule as you are likely to find in the Big Ten.

They do play both Michigan and Ohio State, but both games are in East Lansing. And if that were not enough good fortune, the Spartans also host Northwestern and Wisconsin.

It will not be easy this year in the Big Ten, but if there is a team that could turn the conference upside down, it is Sparty with Dantonio.

Oh, and do not forget, they will also face a fierce test in the second game of the season as they travel to South Bend to take on Notre Dame.

E-mail Seth at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @SethMerenbloom.

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Ranking the Power 5 Conferences for 2016

The SEC has been running college football for about a decade now. When will it end? 2020? 2030? Never? It certainly doesn’t look to be anytime soon. Though the SEC went on a two-year championship drought, it still felt like it was the best conference overall. With Alabama winning it all in 2015, it stamped another year of SEC supremacy.

Even if no conference challenges the Southeastern Conference for the top spot in 2016, it is important to look at the perceived strength of the remaining conferences since it always gets talked about once the playoff rankings roll around.

2016 could be an interesting year because of the relative strengths of the Power 5 conferences. The past two years it was somewhat easy to have four conference champs in the playoff while leaving the fifth conference champ out. Looking forward to 2016, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the first year in the era of the college football playoff that we see two teams from the same conference make the four-team field. So with that, here is my ranking of the Power 5 conferences heading into 2016.

5. Big 12

The Big 12 is used to being picked on when it comes to conference rankings. Being the only Power 5 conference with just 10 teams and without a conference championship game certainly hasn’t helped matters. This offseason hasn’t exactly seen a lot go right for it either. The conference seemingly can’t decide whether it should expand or not, and in the end will probably have to do what Oklahoma and Texas want it to do anyway.

The conference’s on-field prospects don’t exactly look great heading into this fall either. Oklahoma will be ranked highly to start the year with Heisman hopeful Baker Mayfield returning under center after leading the Sooners to the playoff a year ago. Looming however is Oklahoma’s history of falling apart whenever it starts the year ranked highly. If it happens again this season, the conference may not have another team to fall back on to lead its charge.

Baylor looked to be the other contender for the conference, but with the recent off-field turmoil and dismissal of coach Art Briles it is difficult to expect much from the Bears. I wasn’t sure Baylor would make a run at a playoff spot to begin with and replacing the head coach three months before the season starts has only added to those doubts.

There are nothing but question marks among the rest of the teams. Oklahoma State had a nice season in 2015 on its way to a surprising ten wins but got blasted in its final two games against good competition. TCU has to replace Trevone Boykin at quarterback and WR Josh Doctson, who was picked in the first round. Then there’s Texas, who is in the vast group of former powerhouse programs that have to show something before we buy in again.

Being a top conference is largely based on the contenders at the top. I don’t see the Big 12 having that strength at the top or the depth to make up for it.

4. Pac-12

It certainly looks like the Pac-12’s opportunity has passed it by. A couple years ago the conference had gained enough steam where an argument could be made that it was the nation’s best. The past year and a half has seen a swift fall that culminated in the Pac-12 being left out of the college football playoff in 2015. It’s going to be tough for the conference to claw its way back up the conference rankings, at least in 2016.

There’s a decent chance the Pac-12 will be the only Power 5 conference to not have a team ranked in the pre-season Top 10. Stanford has to replace Kevin Hogan who, while not the most dynamic quarterback, has the most wins in Cardinal history. It is also hard to expect Christian McCaffrey to duplicate his historical 2015 season. They may be the favorite again, but they aren’t nearly in the same class as the Alabama/Michigan/Clemson’s of the world heading into this season.

The Cardinal’s main competition in the Pac-12 recently, the Oregon Ducks, will be trying to bounce back from their first season of under ten wins since 2007. They’ll have to do it with just five starters returning on defense and relying on another FCS transfer at quarterback.

Elsewhere in the conference you have USC which hasn’t been able to get back to national prominence, UCLA who has folded under the weight of pre-season expectations multiple times recently, and a group of average teams that were a disaster on defense a year ago (Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon State).

The two teams that battle for the Apple Cup, Washington and Washington State, give the conference some hope in providing quality depth. The Huskies will be a popular sleeper pick to be the conference champion, and the Cougars Mike Leach-led offense will have a field day against Pac-12 defenses after ranking first nationally in passing a year ago.

There is a lot of uncertainty in the Pac-12 and a lot of that comes down to the unknowns behind center. The conference has just six returning starters at quarterback (all other Power 5 conferences have at least nine). The Pac-12 may not have elite level teams, but it still has some quality depth throughout the conference which is why I rank it ahead of the Big 12.

3. Big Ten

There isn’t nearly as much uncertainty in the Big Ten where Ohio State and Michigan may both be ranked in the top 10 to start the year, two teams that didn’t even play for the conference title in 2015. Michigan should challenge for a playoff spot and even with just six starters returning, anything less than double-digit wins would be a disappointment in Columbus.

Then we get to Michigan State and Iowa, the two teams that did play for the Big Ten Championship a year ago. Regardless of who they lost, the Spartans can’t be counted out after what they’ve done under Mark Dantonio. Aside from 2012, Sparty has notched at least 11 wins every year this decade. The Hawkeyes will be doubted again after being treated to much of the same throughout their surprise 2015 campaign, but I don’t think they should be. They should have one of the best defenses in the country led by future first-round cornerback Desmond King. That defense, along with a returning signal-caller and a solid running game, will keep them in each contest.

The difference when it comes to the Big Ten is that I believe the bottom of the conference is more of a disaster than the ACC, which is why I could only put it at three.

2. ACC

The ACC can thank Clemson for getting it out of the conference-rankings basement in recent years. The conference needed a team to step up to challenge Florida State on a yearly basis and the Tigers have done more than that. Clemson has reached SEC-level respect nationwide under Dabo Swinney as they are expected to be a contender every year no matter who they lose to the NFL.

This year they’ll have a tougher path in an Atlantic Coast Conference that may be as good as it has been in recent memory. The Seminoles have the look of a top 5 team with athletes all over the defense and every single starter returning on offense.

A large number of returning starters is a common theme among ACC teams in 2016. Eight of the conference’s 14 teams return at least 15 starters, and 11/14 have their starting quarterback returning (a nation high). While this doesn’t mean all of those teams will necessarily be good, it does mean a lot of those teams should be improved, increasing competition in the middle and bottom off the conference. Boston College, Syracuse, and Wake Forest were at the bottom of the conference a year ago, but with 15+ starters back including the quarterback, should be less of a pushover than they were in 2015.

There’s also hope for the ACC in the tier below Florida State and Clemson. Louisville has eight starters back on a defense that was 18th in the country last year. If they can get consistency from an offense with 10 starters returning, they’ll be a dark horse in the conference.

The Coastal division should be a three-team race between UNC, Pitt, and Miami. The Tar Heels will be the favorite, but it’s hard to expect them to run away with it again if they repeat a defensive performance that left them 97th in the country in 2015. The Panthers return eight starters on each side of the ball after going 6-2 in conference play a year ago. Then there’s Miami, which could see improvement with new head coach Mark Richt and a quarterback that could be taken very highly in the 2017 NFL Draft.

1. SEC

Was there any doubt? As much as I’d like to see another conference take over the top spot, it’s hard to make that argument for 2016. After last year, it’s time for anyone (myself included) who doubted Alabama to stop expecting less than an SEC championship for the Tide. It’s better to just be surprised if it doesn’t happen.

LSU could be the team to overtake them this year. After a couple of disappointing seasons, the Tigers have the look of a championship contender once again. Everyone will point to the needed improvement at quarterback, which is surely necessary. Really though, it’s the defense that needs to get back to playing the way it used to. The Tigers’ run defense imploded last year during the team’s losses, but should revert to form with nine starters back and new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda on board.

Tennessee was looked at as a bit of a disappointment last year, but still went 9-4. This year they bring 17 starters back from that team, including a dynamic backfield in Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd. Along with Tennessee, Ole Miss could help give the SEC four pre-season Top 10 teams. Say what you want about pre-season polls, but they are generally about the most talented teams, and the SEC has more talent than anyone.

The talent discrepancy shows up among the second-tier of the SEC, where teams like Tennessee, Arkansas, and Ole Miss had dominating bowl wins over other Power 5 teams. Other conferences may have a couple teams as good as the SEC’s top teams, but it’s the quality of that middle tier that keeps the SEC on top.

Feature image courtesy Ken Lund

Michigan State Spartans Early Football Preview

There is no doubt that the past three seasons have been pretty special for the Michigan State Spartans. Not only have they amassed an enviable 36-5 record but have captured two Big Ten titles, victories in the Rose and Cotton bowls and earned their way into the College Football Playoffs. It is a remarkable run that the Spartan faithful hope can continue into next season but it will be no easy task to replicate as the team loses a significant amount of talent, most notably signal caller Connor Cook, and must compete in one of the toughest divisions in college football, the Big Ten East. Here is an early preview of the upcoming season.

2016 Schedule

Michigan State opens the season with a nice warmup against lowly FCS opponent Furman but things get much tougher as they will travel next to Notre Dame to battle the Fighting Irish, followed by a home matchup versus Wisconsin. Obviously going 3-0 is the goal but with all the new pieces coming together early in the year, there may be some bumps along the way and I envision them losing to Notre Dame though the Badgers could also put up a formidable fight. They then have a winnable matchup against Indiana before taking on a BYU team, who will be anything but a pushover, in their final nonconference game. Things somewhat settle down with Northwestern and Maryland before a showdown with rival Michigan followed by two “easier” games against Illinois and Rutgers. The Spartans cap off their season with Ohio State and Penn State. Considering the opponents they face, amassing a 9-3 record should be seen as a solid year and many programs would be fine with that. However, this isn’t any other program and given their recent run of success, anything less than a trip to the title game will be seen as a failure. Unfortunately, I am hard pressed to see wins against Notre Dame, Michigan and even a depleted Ohio State team.

Offense

The biggest concern heading into the season is of course who will replace Connor Cook and can his replacement replicate Cook’s impressive numbers? Well, as of Monday, the initial depth chart did not have a lone candidate as it listed either senior Tyler O’Connor or junior Damien Terry as the starter and coach Mark Dantonio stated it could be a process that could play out into the first couple games. In fact, Dantonio did not rule out redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke or true freshman Messiah deWeaver as contenders for the position. While this situation may not instill confidence for the fans, it maybe in the Spartans best interest to let this one play out. Senior Andrew Maxwell started the 2013 season as the man under center but the job was ultimately given to Cook after being afforded playing time and we all know how that turned out.

Losing your starting quarterback can be tough but also losing your primary receiver and security blanket can be an even bigger conundrum. That is what the Spartans will have to deal with this year as they lose receiver Aaron Burbridge, who hauled in a school record 85 catches and led the conference with 1,258 yards. It is a big hole to fill and many programs would struggle finding new weapons but fortunately, they still have some solid senior leadership with R.J. Shelton and tight end Josiah Price returning, both of whom combined for 66 receptions, 770 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015. Besides those two, Michigan State has several young prospects they are high on such as redshirt freshman Darrell Stewart Jr. and sophomore Felton Davis III, both of whom are slated currently as starters, as well as freshman Donnie Corley, though all three will be challenged to elevate their levels of production.

Moving on, there is also concern that this could be a transition year filled with some growing pains for the offensive line as it loses three starters including left tackle Jack Conklin and center Jack Allen, both of whom were All-Americans. Now, last season was an interesting year for the offensive line as it dealt with a slew of injuries that forced the Spartans to have several different starting combinations and featured a whole contingent of players make appearances. As a result, this means the Spartans 2016 offensive line has depth and a wealth of experience. However, there remains uncertainty as every position has a co-starter assigned to it.

Last, the Spartans named their trio of running backs as starters (LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes, Madre London) on the depth chart at least as of now with each bringing different styles though Scott definitely has the most upside as he ran for 699 yards on 4.8 yards per attempt and found the endzone 11 times.

Defense

It can be argued that the defensive line was the position group hit hardest during the offseason as three linemen (Shilique Calhoun, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas) departed from the university. Calhoun, in particular, was a game changer as he racked up 10.5 sacks last season (27 career sacks) and was named first-team All-Big Ten three consecutive years. Yet, despite the turnover of player personnel, the line is still very rich and deep with talent. Junior tackle Malik McDowell should be a force in the middle and is expected to be one of the most consistent tackles in the country while alongside him, starter Damon Know should get another year of eligibility. At the ends, senior Evan Jones and junior Demetrius Cooper are slated to start this spring though one should keep an eye on sophomore Montez Sweat, who has the ability to compete for the starting job though he was suspended in 2015.

As for linebacker, they still have a lot of valuable experience returning despite losing Darien Harris (90 tackles) including senior leader Riley Bullough, who amassed a team-high 106 tackles, and sixth-year senior Ed Davis, who was out in 2015 due to a knee injury. As a result, juniors Jon Reschke and Chris Frey and current starter on the depth chart, sophomore Andrew Dowell, were thrust into the spotlight and should be reliable playmakers in the future. If Davis can stay on the field, he should help offset the loss of Harris as he was a starter back in 2014.

Last, the secondary should be more polished and deeper this season even though it allowed 233.9 passing yards per contest last season (76th nationally). Injuries sidelined starters RJ Williamson and Vayante Copeland last year and replacements senior Demetrious Cox and junior Montae Nicholson made the most out of their opportunity, sharing the team lead with three interceptions apiece. They both return as starters as well as Copeland and senior corner Darian Hicks who has two years starting experience under his belt. In addition, sophomores Tyson Smith, Khari Willis and Grayson Miller have started in the past and should be regular contributors in the rotation.

Bottom Line

The Michigan State Spartans have big questions to answer on each side of the ball. How long will it take the offensive line to mesh? Is Shelton the next Burbridge? Can their defensive line be as strong as its projected to be or will they regress? What kind of numbers will the new quarterback will put up and can be a reliable leader like Cook was? Now, this isn’t to say the Spartans can’t shock the world this season either. Anything can happen in the world of college football and these Spartans should know firsthand as they beat Michigan in dramatic fashion and spoiled Ohio State’s run at a national title in 2015. I just can’t see them knocking off both rival powerhouses in consecutive years though they will play both at home and feel settling for 9-10 wins is their ceiling.

Ten Reasons Why I Can’t Wait for the Return of SEC Football

It has come: the time of the year when the football world starts to get boring. The college football season is over. The bowl season is over. The NFL season is over. The Super Bowl has been won. The high school recruits have made their decisions. The NFL combine has showcased our athletes. In the football world, this is the time of the year when we do a lot of waiting. And the more I think about it, the harder it gets for me to patiently await the start of the 2016 season for SEC football teams. I can think of countless reasons I am anxiously awaiting SEC football returning to my screen and to my college town, but I have decided to only subject you to ten of those reasons.

  1. The tailgating: I know, tailgating is a common practice for football fans everywhere. But a tailgate in SEC country is something that is often imitated but never duplicated. If you have ever lived in an SEC college town, then you know this. Sure, our teams are better so we don’t need to be as drunk to tolerate however they play that weekend, but we all know football and beer go hand-in-hand anyways. Or football and bourbon…that, too.
  2. The match-ups: We also all know by now that there are some obvious perennial powerhouse teams in the SEC (I’m looking at you, Bama). But that fact does not prevent us from watching interesting matchups every single week, especially those deep-seeded rivalries in our conference like the Iron Bowl. Even in a down year, either team can win one of those rivalry games. And that unpredictability is just plain awesome.
  3. The defense: There are rules by now that take out a little bit of the excitement that has come along with defensive hits in college football. But even though they have softened the game up, we still get to witness some pretty amazing defensive plays down here. The defensive talent on SEC football teams is unparalleled. And everybody knows the key to winning, especially in the SEC, is defense.
  4. The anticipation: This one is pretty self-explanatory. We wait all off-season until our team gets to kick off their season. We wake up too early that day and wait until our game starts. Then, before we know it, the game is over. So almost every week, we get an entire week of down time. During that down time we can scout the opponents and our anticipation for the next game grows. And with the teams we play throughout the season down here, that anticipation almost never fades.
  5. The playoffs: The BCS was a flawed system. The playoffs are a flawed system as well. But at least they are a bit less flawed. There are always going to be a number of biased voters involved in choosing the “best” teams. So having the teams that were deemed part of the top four face off at the end of the year is much better than just giving that chance to the supposed top two. Not that it was a problem for SEC football before, but we almost definitely will be represented on a yearly basis now.
  6. The coaches: College football coaches are a special breed. The coaches in the SEC are even more special. Just last week, a couple of the SEC coaches and a couple Big Ten coaches had a little fun on Twitter. But how can we forget Nick Saban’s extremely embarrassing dance moves, Les Miles and his affinity for grass, or Will Muschamp’s very colorful language? Week in and week out in either half of the conference, you are sure to be entertained by the whole cast of coaches.
  7. The Saturdays: To be completely honest, I am not really sure what to do with myself on most Saturdays. But once the football season starts, I know what I will be doing for hours on end every single Saturday. Even on my team’s bye weekends I know I will be able to find another good conference game to watch. Ahh, the joys of the SEC!
  8. The tradition: If you have ever been to an SEC football game, then you will understand how incredible the tradition is. Tennessee fans will be drunkenly singing Rocky Top, Bama fans obnoxiously yelling “Roll Tide,” Auburn fans constantly saying “War Eagle,” and Ole Miss fans adding their “Hotty Toddy” (whatever that means) to the mix. Any true SEC fan can agree that being a part of their team’s tradition is an experience like no other. That tradition forms an immediate bond between every single fan in the stadium and even fans across the country.
  9. The emotions: An SEC fan can experience the full range of emotions in just a matter of minutes. The perfect example: last year, Tennessee visited Florida. The Vols took a convincing lead over the Gators. My dad was a little smug and definitely very happy. Meanwhile I was visibly upset. Then Florida mounted a crazy comeback and won the game. I was in a state of disbelief; I could barely even form a sentence. Meanwhile my dad could barely stomach a single bite of food. That game caused both my dad and me to experience more emotion than we would have watching an Oscar-nominated drama. And SEC football does that for the rest of the fans on a regular basis too.
  10. The pride: Last but not least, here in SEC Country there are two kinds of pride that many of us can understand. There is the obvious pride that goes along with your favorite team winning a game or having a good season. Then there is the SEC pride that comes from the realization that your team is a part of the best conference in college football. I prefer Gator pride any day, but my SEC pride will do when my Gators are not able to deliver.

I am a woman of my word. I said that I would only subject you to ten of my reasons, and that is what I did. But if you want some more SEC love you can interact with me on Twitter, @OGKristenB! Or even if you are just as bored as I am waiting for football to come back into your life then you can find me on Twitter to empathize. After all, misery loves company.