January 8, 2014 at 10:56 am

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan State football has stepped up its game; can Michigan?

East Lansing — Change is coming, it always is. In college football now, status quo loses and aggressiveness wins.

Michigan State proved it. Florida State and Auburn proved it. And a few traditional powers — Michigan, Florida, Texas — unintentionally proved it by ignoring it.

Old school entitlement is a fading concept, something Mark Dantonio has hammered and instilled. The Spartans finished 13-1 and ranked third because they attacked, and not only with their amazing defense. Next season, a more-inclusive playoff system promises even more rewards for the bold and emboldened.

Brady Hoke sits today where Dantonio sat a year ago, needing to adapt. He has contemplated changes, with offensive coordinator Al Borges and line coach Darrell Funk under particular scrutiny. This isn’t about hunting for scapegoats. It’s about adjusting and making difficult decisions, which Hoke must consider after an embarrassing collapse.

The Wolverines finished 7-6 — same as the Spartans in 2012 — and lacked cohesiveness. After fine early returns under Hoke, they regressed badly the past two seasons and something has to change — whether it’s in the staff, in the philosophy, or in the urgency.

It would be foolish to bury Michigan, just as it was short-sighted to bury Michigan State when its offense was in disarray. With touted recruiting and a rich history, Michigan arrogantly assumed everything would work itself out. It still can, but it needs a kick.

Change can be good

A few years ago, the Buckeyes success under Jim Tressel nudged the Wolverines toward a huge move.

They stirred it up with Rich Rodriguez and then didn’t really give it a chance. Now the Spartans success and the Buckeyes revival under Urban Meyer should threaten (and push) the Wolverines even more. Rivals push rivals, or at least that’s the way it should be.

A year ago, Auburn was 3-9, had just fired Gene Chizik and was stuck behind Nick Saban’s monster at Alabama. The Tigers hired up-tempo whiz Gus Malzahn and he brought them to the brink of another national championship.

A year ago, Florida State was 12-2 but lost numerous assistants for various reasons, some leaving to take bigger jobs. Jimbo Fisher hired six new ones and the Seminoles rolled — through a ridiculously easy schedule, by the way — to 14-0. Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston helped complete Florida State’s climb out of Florida’s shadow.

The Seminoles riveting 34-31 victory in the final BCS championship game showed college football doesn’t need an overhaul. But the four-team playoff is coming, bringing the expectation of more high-stakes thrillers, and the reality of more high-stakes pressure. There still will only be one winner next season, but technically, more “losers” — those that don’t make the playoff and those that lose in the playoff. That’s unfortunate because the sheer joy of the Spartans season would be less likely in the new format.

Michigan State has risen steadily in seven seasons under Dantonio, but he has been bold when necessary. He switched quarterbacks, from senior Andrew Maxwell to sophomore Connor Cook, and adopted co-offensive coordinators, Dave Warner and Jim Bollman. Dantonio is known for timely risk-taking, and he had to smile at Fisher’s game-changing fake punt with the Seminoles trailing 21-3.

Implementing the plan

More than ever, college football’s hierarchy has been altered by singular stars and systems. Johnny Manziel’s incredible impact at Texas A&M and Art Briles’ wild offense at Baylor essentially helped push out Mack Brown at Texas.

When he arrived, Dantonio was irritated by Michigan’s pompous dominance, and once his goal of unseating the state’s power was accomplished, it led to larger goals, such as national-title contention. The Spartans should be good again next year, although they’ll have to recreate that nasty edge on defense with six new starters, generate more from their offense and somehow retain their underdog attitude. And of course, they’ll hope superb defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi resists the temptation to leave.

The understated secret to Michigan State’s success is this — smart seasoning.

Because Dantonio generally hasn’t loaded up with acclaimed recruits, he gets hungry players who fit his system, marinate for a year or two, gather strength and motivation, and then are ready.

Hoke hasn’t had that chance yet at Michigan, and the transition from Rodriguez’s style has been an impediment. But no more excuses, not when other programs adjust so quickly. Greg Mattison’s defense was a mess at times, but offense is where it really fell apart. Borges was slow to react — Michigan finished 121st out of 123 teams in tackles-for-loss — right up until he finally let loose in the 42-41 loss to Ohio State. With the right plan and a better line, Devin Gardner could be dynamic as a senior, which is key for a Michigan rebound.

Without constant evaluation, programs can get complacent, and more and more upstarts are ready to jump into the void. The Wolverines lack some elements, but motivational fuel shouldn’t be one now, and neither should “potential” talent. They can bounce back, but just saying it or assuming it isn’t enough. If the right adjustments are made, things can change quickly, and the Wolverines need look no farther than their biggest rivals for confirmation.


The switch from senior Andrew Maxwell to sophomore Connor Cook at quarterback is one coach Mark Dantonio's bold moves during the Spartans' 13-1 season. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News
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