My, my, how quickly things change. Not that long ago, the Spartans were spitting out 11-win seasons like sunflower seeds, one after another with minimal effort. The Wolverines were regularly changing coaches and quarterbacks, and also undergarments whenever they ventured to East Lansing. Ohio State and Penn State were taking breaks between scandals, Minnesota was more a speck than a Fleck, and beating Nebraska still meant something.
It’s hard to keep up, quite frankly. One minute, Mark Dantonio is a legend running circles around his rivals. The next minute, he’s talking in circles about closing circles as his circle of trust shrinks. He says he wants to return as Michigan State’s coach for a 14th season, not retire, and says it in a way that’s both vague and clear. Now no one knows whether to build him a life-sized statue or a life-sized transfer portal.
One minute, Jim Harbaugh is trailing Wisconsin 35-0 and eliciting so many howls of displeasure from Michigan fans, you’d think he changed his name to JimRod. The next minute, he’s spinning oratory magic at halftime against Penn State, stomping Notre Dame and Michigan State, and raising hopes Michigan indeed can win the Big Ten again someday. (Just not this season, so stop asking.)
Now the Wolverines are 8-2 as they head to Indiana for a notorious trap game that can’t legally be called a trap game anymore because everyone sees the trap, right before they step into the Buckeye trap. The Spartans are 4-6 and headed to Rutgers, where the 2-8 Scarlet Knights also are wary of a trap game and don’t plan to take the Spartans lightly.
It’s a sudden flip of roles for Michigan and Michigan State that no one saw coming, and by “no one,” I mean “anyone with a rudimentary grasp of college football history.” Things change, and then they go back to the way they were. You’ll notice the same teams in the CFP rankings every week — LSU, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia and Alabama, sprinkled with an occasional Iowa State, Boise State or Memphis just to fill out the paperwork.
Of course, Michigan’s 46-42 record under RichRod and Brady Hoke wasn’t sustainable, no matter how hard they tried. Neither was Michigan State’s 36-5 record during a stretch under Dantonio. It always comes full circle, except at Ohio State, where each new regime simply circles the wagons and deletes the texts.
To his credit, Dantonio finally wrestled attention away from Harbaugh, although he should’ve been careful what he wished for. I doubt this was his plan, to blow a 25-point lead against Illinois, lose by 34 to Michigan and have his job status hotly debated. It’s his own fault, by the way. He’s the one who had the audacity to win a Rose Bowl and go to the playoff, and still talk about the pride and the fall and imaginary chips. He’s the one who made a 24-24 record the past four seasons no longer acceptable at Michigan State.
After eight victories in 11 meetings, Michigan State has suffered consecutive beatings by Michigan, leaving some Spartan fans so frustrated, they’ve gone back to just rooting for whoever the Wolverines play. With a five-game losing streak, Dantonio is so embattled, he finally might have to go meet the school’s athletic director and president, or at least return their calls.
Thanksgiving is upon us, the time when families gather to drink too much gin (hey, every family is different) while engaging in uncomfortable conversations. That’s pretty much what’s happening in East Lansing. Dantonio will sit at the head of the table and deliver a lengthy list of thanks, while others will respectfully try to tell him the turkey is getting cold and nobody likes his boring green bean casserole anymore.
Patience is a rare commodity these days, and impatience grows rapidly. Harbaugh was talking about this the other day, as Michigan’s fancy-schmancy new offense finally is producing more touchdowns than fumbles. It takes time, as Harbaugh noted in this real quote: “You can’t plant potatoes one day and expect to eat potato salad the next day.”
The way most people get potato salad is to drive to the grocery store and pluck it out of the cooler after checking the expiration date. Takes about 10 minutes and it’s the only salad worth eating. But I get the analogy.
For instance, when Dantonio arrived in East Lansing 13 years ago, he reportedly threw three magic beans out the window. They sprouted into a giant green beanstalk that produced a plump bounty of upset victories. (In the real fable, I assume Jack actually consumed magic-bean brownies and hallucinated.) But the lesson is, you can sell a cow (or a soul) to grow a big program, but you also need time and nourishment and the occasional fumbled punt snap. Also, nobody works for beans anymore.
Dantonio still sees a green stalk in need of a little care, while others see a hill of beans. If he truly craves the chance to plant again, he’d better be ready to shovel the fertilizer.
Michigan at Indiana: I’m old enough to remember when you didn’t have to take the Hoosiers seriously in football. Now you don’t have to take them seriously in basketball. The Wolverines have won 23 straight in the series but it’s never easy, and that’s not even patronizing. They’ve gone to overtime the last two trips there, so they won’t be looking ahead. Besides, it’s not like looking ahead to Ohio State ever helps anyhow. Pick: Michigan 37-23
Michigan State at Rutgers: Give credit to the Scarlet Knights, who do stuff nobody else even thinks of. They’ve lost 19 straight Big Ten games -— amazing! They scored 21 points against Ohio State last week — more amazing! If the Spartans win their last two, they’ll be eligible for that long-coveted trip to the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, thus completing at least one circle. Pick: Michigan State 38-21
Penn State at Ohio State: If Ohio State wins, it clinches the Big Ten East and earns the right to beat Minnesota in the championship game by the approximate score of 52-8. That would make next week’s opponent — Michigan, according to my notes — a trap game, would it not? The 10-0 Buckeyes are favored by a whopping 19 points, and with star Chase Young returning from his two-week work-study program, they should top it. Pick: Ohio State 45-20
Arkansas at LSU: Why am I bothering with this stupid blowout? Because it’s historic — No. 1 LSU is a 46-point favorite, the largest spread ever between SEC teams. It’s the highlight of the annual Cupcake Week down there, and these are the actual opponents for SEC teams Saturday: Samford, Western Carolina, UT-Martin, E. Tennessee State, Abilene Christian. And to think, the Big Ten feels bad about playing Rutgers and Maryland?! Pick: LSU 65-20