Wojo's Pigskin Picks: As Spartans and Wolverines kick it off, time to kick it up a notch

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

After years of playing football the way it’s supposed to be played, with mud on the trousers, malice in the heart and a playbook the size of a Post-it Note, Michigan and Michigan State grudgingly reached the same conclusion. It was time to try something different, so both went to the chalkboard, added a few O’s to all the X’s and Z’s, and will unveil new offenses in an attempt to keep up (or catch up) with up-tempo teams that view the huddle as just another boring meeting.

I’m not saying the Wolverines and Spartans grew a little slow and stodgy. I’m just saying they often broke the huddle still clutching Styrofoam coffee cups and a sweet roll. Defense hasn’t been a problem for either team, except for the occasional 62-point slip-up against an Ohio school more likely to dicker about legal usage of “THE” than do background checks on THE assistant coaches.

Another fascinating season is about to begin, and for No. 7 Michigan and No. 18 Michigan State to fulfill lofty ambitions in the Big Ten’s PU Era (Post-Urban), they need to evolve. That means shaking up their offenses and admitting RPO in football means Run-Pass Option, not Run-Play-Over-and-Over.

Mark Dantonio executed a dramatic makeover by sneaking into the Michigan State football offices late one night and switching around all the nameplates on the doors. He also ordered new stationary for every assistant. Then he announced Brad Salem was his coordinator and declined to reveal anything else about the offense. Dantonio has been known to use strategic witchcraft to pull out games, and to lift this cloak of secrecy, I’m afraid we’ll have to conduct our own Salem witch trials. (Too soon?)

Jim Harbaugh has been much more open in Ann Arbor, talking a lot about “speed,” “spread,” “shotgun,” and “portal.” Clearly, if this new offense moves as expected, there won’t be much time for fans to use the portal-potties.

Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines will unveil their new offense on Saturday night against Middle Tennessee State.

Harbaugh recognized he has excellent receivers, a shifty quarterback in Shea Patterson and an experienced line, so naturally, he hired a coordinator who has never called a play. It’s not as crazy as it sounds, unless it is. Josh Gattis is 35, the first millennial to direct Michigan’s offense, so we know it’ll have the right mix of impatience and narcissism. He comes from Alabama and almost went to Maryland, until he realized Harbaugh was serious about letting him use the real chalkboard and headset.

This is what Harbaugh had to do, as he enters his fifth season of not beating Ohio State and not getting the shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo’s in Indianapolis. For Michigan, 10-3 is the new 9-4, solid seasons that leave fans feeling empty. Luckily for them, this is forecast to be the year the Wolverines finally bust through, according to the Farmer’s Almanac.

As usual, there has been a lot of entertaining, ancillary noise. Harbaugh has exchanged jabs with the deposed Urban Meyer, sparred with a fickle Cincinnati coach, and broke coaching decorum by suggesting it’s no SECret that cheaters exist in college football and it’s hard to Buck the trend. All of this would play better if the Wolverines actually were to win their first Big Ten title since 2004, and the experts think they can.

The schedule is brutal, although most of the brutality is slated for the Big House, where Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State must visit. Of course, the Spartans and Buckeyes generally enjoy visiting Ann Arbor, and not just for the edibles.

These are adjustments of necessity for the Wolverines and Spartans, who can’t keep wasting dominant defenses. As stellar as Dantonio’s overall record is, Michigan State fell to 7-6 last season and inexplicably decided to stop scoring touchdowns after mid-October, stumbling into something called the Redbox Bowl. (Legal disclaimer: The Spartans had lots of injuries and lots of punters, a really bad combination). Dantonio smartly realized he couldn’t ask linebacker Joe Bachie to lead the team in scoring, so he shuffled one of the worst offenses in the non-leather-helmet era.

Michigan State's Mark Dantonio will be happier if his offense puts more points on the scoreboard this season.

We’re not sure what that “shuffling” entails but we assume it will include not asking Brian Lewerke to throw if he can’t lift his right arm above the knee. The Spartans somehow scored zero touchdowns the last four weeks of the season against non-Rutgers opponents, and are intent on at least doubling that total.

Michigan, meanwhile, is overdue to win more than a coveted co-East-Division championship. (Banner-raising 7:30 Saturday night). As consistent as Harbaugh’s 10-3, 10-3, 8-5, 10-3 slate is, he was hired to win big games, not lose big games by miles or millimeters. That means attacking with purpose, beating rivals, holding Ohio State under 60 and not treating Middle Tennessee State like Appalachian State.

For the Wolverines and Spartans, it’s time to switch from heavy boots to sleeker wear, like Skechers or something. They should get comfortable in their openers, with Michigan State looking for revenge against Middle Tennessee State and Michigan facing Tulsa. (Blink, blink). Oops, didn’t mean to knock Tom Izzo off his kitchen chair. The Spartans actually face Tulsa while Michigan plays MTSU, led by seventh-year quarterback Giddy Potts.

Slip on your shoes and get ready to run, fellas. There are new offenses in town! (Or so we’ve heard).

The picks

Tulsa at Michigan State: It begins under the Friday night lights, and you can bet the first time Lewerke takes the snap, cuts to the right, fakes a pitch and rumbles for six yards, Spartan Stadium will shake. It probably won’t be smooth Salem right away, but the days of losing 9-6 and 7-6 surely must be over. The Golden Hurricane has won five total games the past two seasons and won’t be taken seriously until it adds an “s” to the end of its nickname. Pick: Michigan State 30-9

Blue Raiders at Blue: In another sign of the offensive transformation, Harbaugh says he plans to use two quarterbacks, Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey, in most games. According to my imaginary sources, Gattis even has a four-quarterback spread he could spring on Middle Tennessee. Here’s your stat of the day: Michigan is 10-1-1 against teams from Tennessee. (Wow!) All 10 wins came against Vanderbilt. (Oh.) Pick: Michigan 46-10

The Florida Atlantic University at an Ohio State University: It’ll be interesting to see if new coach Ryan Day can fill Urban Meyer’s windbreaker without compromising the program’s cherished ethical standards. The Buckeyes have another touted quarterback, Justin Fields, but if you think they’re just gonna keep scoring 62 points against a renowned coach like Lane Kiffin, you’re nuts. Pick: Ohio State 62-24

Duke versus Alabama (in Atlanta): It’s a “neutral” site for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic, soon to be renamed the Popeyes Spicy Chicken Sandwich Where Available Kickoff Classic. Duke can be a pesky underdog, but you generally don’t want to be the first opponent after Nick Saban loses a championship game by four touchdowns. Pick: Alabama 49-10

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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