There’s no stopping it now. Michigan State and Ohio State are plowing straight ahead, and after they return from their eight-week Peace Corps missions, they’ll collide to determine who’s the mightiest in the mighty Big Ten, and perhaps the whole country.
Oh yeah, I said it. The epicenter of college football again is situated in the humble Midwest, which must be embarrassing for those mouth-breathing SEC folks. In fact, the only opponents capable of knocking off the Spartans or Buckeyes at this stage are the standard old plagues – arrogance, complacency and locusts.
It’s laid out perfectly now that Michigan State tackled just enough Ducks to beat Oregon 31-28 and Ohio State managed to hold off Hawaii 38-0. And you gotta admit, this is a fine collaborative effort by the Big Ten. To ensure Mark “Just Mark” Dantonio and Urban Meyer will take undefeated squads into their Nov. 21 clash, the conference quietly suggested to members to stand down. In the spirit of brotherly conference-hood, they’ve complied.
Michigan is in the eighth year of its federally funded restoration project. Penn State doesn’t even pretend to block anymore. Illinois fired its coach and is expected to reprimand replacement Bill Cubit for going 2-0. Rutgers suspended its coach, Kyle “Flash” Flood,” and not just because New Jersey state police had to build a separate wing to accommodate all the arrested football players. Meanwhile, Indiana, Purdue and Maryland continue their roles as Indiana, Purdue and Maryland.
It’s funny, because when the NCAA implemented its playoff system, it was assumed all four spots would be occupied by SEC teams every year. Now, there’s legitimate speculation the Big Ten could take three spots – No. 1 Ohio State, No. 4 Michigan State and perpetually plucky Northwestern.
Am I overreacting to two weeks of football? Of course! But let’s do something different – let’s look at facts about our Southern friends.
Arkansas lost to Toledo, thus confirming the move of Bret Bielema from head Badger to hedge Hog was a covert operation by the Big Ten to undermine the SEC. With all due respect, if you lose at home to Toledo, you should be banished from your conference (Hi RichRod!).
That’s complacency. You want to talk arrogance? Auburn got cocky with its schedule and needed overtime to sneak past NFL doormat Jacksonville (State). South Carolina lost to Kentucky, which is humiliating no matter how many one-and-dones the Wildcats have. Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Florida and Tennessee all have shaky, shockingly low-paid quarterbacks.
So it’s important Dantonio reminds his players of the piddlin’ tasks in front of them, not the giant task eight weeks later. This is part of the culture shift in East Lansing, and by “culture,” we don’t mean “museums and libraries and stuff.” We mean a fierce determination to not get complacent, no matter how many opposing quarterbacks get injured.
This is what I mean by things unfolding nicely. Oregon’s Vernon Adams Jr. played with a broken finger last week, which seemed irrelevant right up until he overthrew a wide-open receiver by approximately 37 yards in the closing minute. This week, sometimes-dangerous Air Force comes to town after losing its quarterback to a knee injury.
I’m not insinuating anything here. I’m just saying, if you inspect the schedules for Michigan State and Ohio State, you’ll find such softies as: Northern Illinois, Illinois, Penn State, Nebraska, Hawaii, Indiana, Purdue, Maryland, Rutgers and most of the Michigans (Western, Central, Regular).
Not exactly imposing, which is why Dantonio’s toughest task is finding someone to pseudo-insult his team so he can remain extremely irritated. After beating Oregon, he pointedly said, “This was the place to be in this state today,” an obvious slap at Mount Pleasant, where Central Michigan rolled Monmouth 31-10. Dantonio will have difficulty saying the same thing Saturday, with Eastern Michigan returning to Ypsilanti to face Ball State after beating Wyoming, its first nonconference road victory in 27 years. School officials also will sell beer for the first time at Rynearson Stadium, so there should be quite a buzz.
Dantonio must make sure his team stays focused, and the Spartans have gotten pretty good at it, frankly. After big victories in the past, school janitors would open the Michigan State locker room on Sunday mornings to find empty bottles of Fireball, smoldering furniture and stacks of crumpled White Castle wrappers.
Not anymore. Michigan State is a legitimate national power, which means it has to pretend it won’t look past anyone, even 26-point underdog Air Force. It’ll be tricky, as you can tell by this team meeting that I fabricated and secretly recorded:
Dantonio: “Men, look at how that option works. Look at that guy run!”
Players: (Murmur murmur)
Dantonio: “We’ve never faced an offense like this. It doesn’t even matter who their quarterback is!”
Players: (Shifting uncomfortably)
Dantonio: “What’s the problem, men?”
Player: “Uh coach, I thought you said we were playing Air Force.”
Dantonio: “We are!”
Player: “So why are we watching tape of Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett?”
Like I said, this won’t be as easy as it looks. Pick: Michigan State 38-17.
■UNLV at Michigan: Jim Harbaugh continues to resurrect storied traditions, and already ended Michigan’s long drought by beating bitter rival OSU (Oregon State, whatever). The Wolverines haven’t lost a single game outside the state of Utah, and at this rate, it won’t be long before they go back to completely overlooking acronym opponents. Pick: Michigan 45-10.
■Nebraska at Miami: These tattered old powers are unranked, and I have an idea why. Since 1998, the following gentlemen have coached the Cornhuskers at least one game: Frank Solich, Bill Callahan, Bo Pelini, Barney Cotton (no joke!), Mike Riley. In the same time frame, these fellas coached the Hurricanes: Butch Davis, Larry Coker, Randy Shannon, Jeff Stoutland, Al Golden. Not exactly the Golden years! Pick: Miami 30-23
■Mississippi at Alabama: This is the scam the SEC tries to pull off, exaggerating the strength of its depth so any conference victory looks like a big one. But as Rasheed Wallace famously yelled, “Bowl don’t lie!” Alabama lost to Ohio State in the playoffs, and the SEC is 0-5 in BCS bowls and playoff games the past two seasons. Pick: Alabama 24-10.