Wojo: Wolverines stand on level ground with Spartans

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
In his second season at Michigan, Jim Harbaugh has a team that is ranked No. 7 in the AP preseason poll and is a playoff contender.

Mark Dantonio talks about results, and he should. Michigan State has produced for a while, with Big Ten titles and big rivalry victories and all sorts of lofty rankings.

Jim Harbaugh talks about dreams, and he should. Michigan has been looking up for a while, dutifully trying to turn hype and hope into reality.

A collision is coming and it should be tremendous, as compelling as we’ve ever seen around here. The Spartans once sat at the juncture of promise and results, and delivered in resounding fashion. The Wolverines sit there now, seventh in the AP preseason poll, a popular pick to make the College Football Playoff.

This Big Ten season isn’t just about Michigan and Michigan State, not with Ohio State and Urban Meyer always hovering. It’s not just about the in-state clash in East Lansing on Oct. 29. There are other opponents to dispatch, such as Furman and Hawaii, the opening “tests” for Michigan State and Michigan, respectively.

But for the first time since the Wolverines erratically veered after Lloyd Carr’s retirement in 2007, they stand on level ground with the Spartans, as far as talent, senior leadership, expectations and a potentially dominant defense. At least it appears that way, minus one notable step — results.

“The attitude, the mentality, is to set goals high, dream big, and realize all those can be accomplished once the work is realized,” Harbaugh said. “If people aren’t making fun of you for what your dreams are, what your goals are, then you haven’t set those goals and dreams high enough.”

Time to back it up on the field

If anyone’s still mocking the Wolverines’ goals, it’s merely out of habit. But as much as Michigan accomplished in Harbaugh’s first season, including a 10-3 record and a 41-7 bowl victory over Florida, the results aren’t ratified until ugly streaks are broken. The Wolverines have lost seven of eight to the Spartans and 11 of 12 to the Buckeyes, and the pressure grows heavier with each loss.

Plenty has separated Michigan State and Michigan the past eight years. In that span, the Spartans are 80-27 with three Big Ten titles. The Wolverines are 56-45, with no Big Ten title since 2004. Last season the gap was narrowed — to approximately 10 seconds. The Spartans prevailed with a finish for the ages on Jalen Watts-Jackson’s magical return of a botched punt to beat the Wolverines on the final play.

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It may have been an incomprehensible ending, but the Spartans have proven remarkably capable in those moments. It’s that whole results thing again, including the stunning 17-14 victory at Ohio State, and the sweaty 16-13 triumph over Iowa in the Big Ten championship game.

The Spartans are ranked 12th after losing loads of talent from a 12-2 team, but they know the path very well. They know it well enough that a member of the Michigan State staff — recruiting coordinator Curtis Blackwell — recently Tweeted a photo touting their sustained success, highlighted by this phrase: “Those who have stayed are already champions.”

It’s a pointed twist on the old Bo Schembechler mantra proclaiming those who stay will be champions. Harbaugh, who responds to pretty much any public jab, hasn’t touched that one. After the celebrated satellite-camp tour and the rap video and the Jumpman mania, the Wolverines are now required to back it up on the field.

The Spartans will try to keep it up, and they have the foundation to do it. They also play the Wolverines and Buckeyes in East Lansing, and despite significant departures to the NFL, they have a senior-laden team in a program that has won 11-plus games five of the past six years.

“We’ve had success here, and we can sell that,” said Dantonio, entering his 10th season. “With that being said, I think you always need to aspire to be a little bit better or go a little bit farther. That’s the way we need to be built here.”

‘Last year was our test run’

So, Dantonio’s annual slogan has morphed from #DreamBig to #Back2Back, and no one dares disparage their ambition. It’s not just about winning the Big Ten anymore, but about getting back to the playoff, where Michigan State lost to Alabama, 38-0, re-stocking the motivation vault.

In fact, the Spartans and Wolverines look eerily similar in a lot of ways, from the hunger of unfinished business, to the relentless coaches, to new quarterbacks, unproven offensive lines and fearsome defenses.

Mark Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh shake hands before last year's game in Ann Arbor.

Michigan State will be led by Riley Bullough and the linebackers, a gifted secondary and potential All-American defensive lineman Malik McDowell. Tyler O’Connor is not expected to do what star Connor Cook did, and his lack of game experience — other than the tidy victory in Columbus when Cook was injured — is what gives pundits pause.

Michigan also is breaking in a quarterback, and if he works out as well as Jake Rudock did, any expectation is attainable. Whether it’s Wilton Speight — the slight favorite — or transfer John O’Korn, he’ll have the luxury of excellent senior pass-catchers, led by tight end Jake Butt, and what should be one of the best defenses in the country.

The Wolverines also have a deep defensive line and versatile impact players in Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis, as well as a new coordinator, Don Brown, who’s widely lauded for his aggressive schemes. Virtually every player with a choice opted to return, and Michigan could have as many as 16 seniors filling the 22 starting positions.

“Coach Harbaugh had this program ready to go last year, we just didn’t know what to fully expect,” said Lewis, a senior cornerback. “Last year was our test run, and now I really think we have that mindset, we know what to do, how to finish games. We’ve seen just about everything you can see on a football field, and gaining that wisdom is pretty much the key to our success.”

Ingredients for special season

It was a good experience, and at times, a crushing experience, and although the Wolverines aren’t inclined to talk about their rivals, they know the score. They also know the rough road ahead. After a soft start, Michigan has three brutal trips, to Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State. Michigan State plays at Notre Dame early, then gets its toughest opponents at home.

The Wolverines believe they’re capable of a special season, and they have the ingredients to do it. The Spartans may have slightly fewer ingredients, but the invaluable asset of knowing they’ve done it.

“I feel like we’re just in a reload type of thing,” said senior safety Demetrious Cox, a captain. “But I’ve been here five years, so I know how it goes. I rarely read articles anymore because I pretty much know what it’s gonna say most of the time.”

What’s it gonna say?

“It’s gonna say a lot about not us,” he said.

The Spartans don’t need to say much these days. And although the Wolverines are back in the conversation, they can’t say much, not until they do it.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @bobwojnowski

Hawaii at Michigan

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: ESPN/WWJ

Records: Hawaii 0-1, Michigan 0-0

Line: Michigan by 41

Series: Michigan leads 2-0