Niyo: New era for UM, MSU to kick off

John Niyo
The Detroit News

The hype has to end sometime. But the hope, from both sides of this divided state of college football in Michigan, is that it’s just getting started.

And whether it’s the Wolverines’ throwback unveiling tonight at Utah — white pants and all — or the Spartans’ debut Friday night in the cozy confines of a half-crazed campus in Kalamazoo, there’s a common thread that’s pulling people in, the way this sport always manages to do. And yet there’s an uncommon frenzy, the likes of which we’ve felt just once or twice in the last couple decades.

“To me, it’s about new beginnings,” said Mark Dantonio, who is getting to be an old hand at this, keeping an even keel as he raises expectations in East Lansing. “There are no guarantees.”

Not for his Michigan State team, which begins the season on championship alert, ranked No. 5 in the country — the Spartans’ highest preseason ranking since 1967. And not for the program down the road in “Ann Arbaugh,” where the new coach has been hailed as both a gridiron savant and savior.

New beginnings? Tonight, we’ll all get our first glimpse as Jim Harbaugh and Michigan try again to turn back the clock. Friday, it’ll be time for seconds — with Michigan State on deck — and maybe even some second-guessing, as the state’s two major Division I programs find out just how much work there is to do ahead of Labor Day.

“It’s what we all signed up for,” said Harbaugh, the former star quarterback at Michigan and current coaching rock star who was wooed back from the NFL in December. “I hope that’s what everybody signed up for, because it’s here.”

MSU’s Mark Dantonio

Indeed, it is, ready or not, although with the Tigers’ season in shambles in early September for the first time in years, who’s not ready for some football?

Fox Sports, which has been touting its season-opening Michigan-Utah broadcast for weeks, had a promotional bus touring the country dressed up like Harbaugh. The network recently announced it’ll feature a handful of live feeds for tonight’s game as well, including a “Khaki Cam” that will focus entirely on Harbaugh.

That probably seems fitting to a lot of fans — and not just those of Big Ten rivals — after the way media coverage of college football’s offseason seemed fixated on Michigan’s coach. But after the happy homecoming and the bare-chested barnstorming tour and all the bizarre, hysterical headlines in between, we are back to this now.

Harbaugh is trying to restore Michigan to its former glory, while Dantonio is determined to scale new heights with Michigan State. And on a season-opening weekend that features two local Mid-American Conference schools hosting Power Five teams — MSU at Western, Oklahoma State at Central — that makes for a pretty full plate.

‘Feels like the SEC’

“The NFL is bigger, I know, but this area is still about college football,” said Josh Lewis, 42, a UM alum who says he’ll be back in the stadium this fall after a year of self-imposed, losing-inspired exile. “I mean, I can’t remember people being this fired up for a season in a long time. I don’t know how good Michigan will be this year. I know they’ll be better. ... But with MSU and Ohio State where they’re at, it kinda feels like the SEC around here.”

That’s probably a stretch, though the Harbaugh hire at Michigan certainly made waves down south as well. But ask the coaches and players if they find any of this overwhelming, and they’ll answer with a resounding no.

“You want to be at the big-boy table,” said Harbaugh, a hard-wired, Bo Schembechler disciple whose competitive streak has been described as “pathological” by friends and foes alike. “There is another table. It’s over there in the kitchen for those that aren’t seated at the big-persons’ table. And if somebody wants to go over there, nobody’s going to be upset with them if they do.”

They probably won’t be playing, though.

Harbaugh’s turnaround artistry produced a .682 winning percentage (58-27) at his previous college stops at San Diego and Stanford. It was .695 (44-19-1) in the pros, where he took the San Francisco 49ers to three consecutive NFC title games and one Super Bowl before wearing out his welcome.

At Michigan, where he has been welcomed like a returning king, the football program hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 2004 and the team — a 51/2-point underdog at Utah, according to the oddsmakers — is coming off a dismal 5-7 season.

“Last year’s not talked about,” said linebacker Joe Bolden, one of Michigan’s senior co-captains. “We didn’t perform. We didn’t do well. We didn’t end well.”

And when it was over, both the head coach (Brady Hoke) and the athletic director (Dave Brandon) were gone, leaving interim AD Jim Hackett to begin a clandestine search for answers. Code-named “Project Unicorn,” it worked to near-perfection, with Harbaugh lured back by a love for his alma mater and a seven-year, $40 million contract that’s expected to grow in short order.

As are his Wolverines, having survived an intense spring football initiation and a grueling preseason camp that senior guard Kyle Kalis joked is one “that I’ll probably tell my kids about when I’m older.” That’s the idea here, as Harbaugh tries to re-establish the kind of power football he, like so many Michigan faithful, was raised on.

“It’s a new team,” Bolden said. “It’s a new year.’”

A new energy, too. There’s a waiting list for season tickets again. The luxury boxes are sold out. Harbaugh’s trademark trousers are everywhere. And in an interview with The News earlier this week, UM President Mark Schissel talked about the “huge excitement around our coach.”

“And I’m so proud,” he said. “It’s a remarkable thing that we were able to really recruit the best coach available, college or pro. By acclimation, everybody agrees: It’s such a fantastic fit.”

MSU on sustained roll

By virtually every measure, Dantonio has been the same at Michigan State, where the former assistant returned to an even bigger rebuilding project in late 2006. There were stumbles early, fences to mend and factions to unite. But Dantonio has fashioned a hard-nosed winner by turning the in-state, sibling rivalry on its ear — winning six of seven against the Wolverines — and by turning lesser recruits into greater results.

“You can sell Michigan State because Michigan State had been on top before,” Dantonio said, though, as he noted, “it might have been awhile” since it was quite like this.

But, he adds, “I’d been here before, so I knew the landscape. That’s No. 1.”

And now that they’re No. 5 — or No. 6 in the coaches’ poll — the landscape admittedly looks a bit different, starting with Friday’s first-ever trip to Waldo Stadium to face P.J. Fleck and the Broncos, arguably the best team in the MAC. After that it’s No. 7 Oregon, one of last year’s national finalists and the only other team besides defending champ Ohio State to beat the Spartans last fall.

Yet Dantonio insists he’s not worried about his team looking ahead, citing not just their maturity, with 16 fourth- or fifth-year players listed among the 22 starters.

“We also have a short memory,” said Dantonio, whose team has won 11 or more games in four of the last five seasons — a 7-6 finish in 2012 is the lone exception. “Or a long memory. I guess it would be a long memory.”

Not that they need any reminders, what with all the Harbaugh hoopla and Buckeye bragging rights, but right on cue a few weeks ago, there was ESPN — during a live in-studio interview — butchering the coach’s name (“Mike D’Antoni”) in between questions about the Spartans’ rivals.

“We’ve always had a chip on our shoulder, no matter what,” quarterback Connor Cook shrugged. “Since I’ve been here, people have always talked about Michigan, always talked about Ohio State and left us in the dust. So it’s nothing new for me.”

This college football playoff is still relatively new, though. And just as there’s no hiding the chip — it was emblazoned on team weightlifting shirts this spring — there’s no hiding the goals here for Michigan State, either. A year ago, four of the top five teams in the preseason poll made the four-team playoff. The team that was ranked No. 5 was the one that went on to win it all.

“But we’ll have to move the rock forward on our own,” Dantonio said. “It all starts with the first game.”

And for college football, it all starts tonight.

Michigan at Utah

Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City

TV / radio: Fox Sports 1 / WWJ 950, WTKA 1050

Line: Utah by 5.5

Series: Utah leads 2-1

Michigan State at Western Michigan

Kickoff: 7 p.m. Friday, Waldo Stadium, Kalamazoo

TV / radio: ESPNU / WJR 760

Line: Michigan State by 18

Series: Michigan State leads 11-2