Phil Harrison

Harrison: Is Michigan State Headed For A Slumber?

Michigan State dropped its third game in a row after getting blown out by BYU at home. This is not what we’ve been accustomed to seeing in East Lansing, but what if it’s signs of things to come in the new world order of the Big Ten?

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Changing the Michigan State culture

It wasn’t a quick house flip, but it was a renovation project nonetheless when Mark Dantonio started wearing the headset in East Lansing back in 2007. He took a historically underachieving and flaky Michigan State team and instilled a new culture of accountability, toughness, and never-say-die attitude.

Like a glove, as they say.

The result has been an outfit that is consistently contending for Big Ten championships, and has been on the cusp of knocking the door down to really, really big things in most recent years. If Ohio State is the flag-bearer of the Big Ten, then Michigan State has become the parade Marshall.

So, who could blame all the media-types when the Spartans were projected to contend for trophies, fist bumps and back-slaps this year despite a bushel of key losses from 2015, most notably one of its best quarterbacks of all time, Connor freakin’ Cook?

Best laid plans

Unfortunately for the Green and White, things haven’t worked out so swimmingly this year. After beginning the season 2-0 with a beat-down of Notre Dame, Michigan State has now dropped three straight games. There was the embarrassing loss to Wisconsin 30-6, a loss in OT to the Indiana Hoosiers last week, and now a rather unimpressive defeat at the hands of a BYU team that came into East Lansing with a 2-3 record. The final score was 31-14 in case you missed that little nugget as well.

The last time Michigan State dropped three games in a row came way back in early 2009 when the ship was still under a slow turn towards open water under Dantonio.

Not the first time

But hey, things will turn around right? I mean all you have to do is look back to 2012 to find a similar scenario that the Spartans were able to soldier out of. Back then, it was Kirk Cousins who was the big man under center heading off to greener pastures. A quarterback competition ensued between Andrew Maxwell and a guy by the name of Connor Cook.

The Spartans lost five Big Ten games by a total of thirteen points that year trying to figure out an identity, barely made a bowl, but found itself a quarterback when Cook grabbed the reigns and began to show his abilities. We know how the next three years went.

But is this year something similar, or are there reasons to believe this rut will be harder to climb out of than the recycling year of 2012?

When Cook came on the scene, and all during the time when Dantonio was methodically turning the Spartan program due North, there were a some things going his way. For starters, the Big Ten had spun out and wrecked itself into a ditch. Ohio State was still finding itself on the big stage, but it got taken behind the wood-shed too often by the SEC and other more glitzy programs.

Further across the league, Michigan was trying out the whole Rich Rodriguez square-peg-in-a-round hole experiment, Wisconsin was very good, but not great, and everybody else in the league resembled a youth soccer game — all botched up together just trying to get a kick in.

And not to be overlooked, Urban Meyer just got his gig coaching in Columbus, while Jim Harbaugh had yet to tweet anything in the vicinity of Ann Arbor.

It was a great time to build something on a rather barren landscape.

Current state of the league

And that brings us to today.

The Spartans have yet to find that option under center that can elevate this team through all the muck and back on the grid in the East division like it did when Cook burst on the scene. There also doesn’t seem to be a legitimate work-horse in the backfield to rely upon either, and the defense is not up to Michigan State standards.

The team will likely improve by the end of the year, but it has light years to go before being anything close to the Spartan teams the rest of the league feared in years of yore.

But there’s a bigger problem. Make that two. Ohio State and Michigan.

All of a sudden, there’s not just a lot of cooks in the kitchen in the East Division, there are a couple of world-renowned chefs chopping and dicing the competition.

Ohio State is now one of the top two or three programs in the country and recruiting as good as anyone in the college football universe. Urban Meyer has stockpiled so much young talent that it’ll be a monster of a program for years to come. Mark Dantonio has had some success recruiting in Ohio, but that’s bound to move towards a trickle with what’s going on in Columbus.

But perhaps even more important, Michigan appears to be back. Jim Harbaugh looks to have made all the Michigan men proud by coming back to campus and quickly establishing the Wolverines as the Leaders and Best once again. He’s recruiting right along-side Urban Meyer, and has a shot at a Big Ten title and more this year. There’s little doubt that things will continue to go well in Ann Arbor as long as Harbaugh is wearing khakis and a ball-cap with his suit.

Harbaugh will undoubtedly pull some of the top-tier talent away from East Lansing. After all …

The harsh reality for Michigan State? The Big Ten might just be the best conference in the country yet again, and there’s only so much room at the top before someone has to trip and stumble down a few rungs.

Issues on the horizon

You’d like to think that Michigan State can stay in this three-team rotation and race among the elite in the Big Ten East, but that’s certainly not a given, or even a good probability when you start to play Big Ten meteorologist and forecast the potential track of this storm.

Dantonio is still bringing in solid recruiting classes, but it’s no where near on par with what Harbaugh and Meyer are hauling in. That means the Spartans have to have less misses on recruits than the Buckeyes and Wolverines, and they have to do a better job of developing the talent that comes to the banks of the Red Cedar.

It’s no longer Ohio State against Michigan State in the West. No, no, it’s now Michigan State against Ohio State and big brother who seems to have come home from college to give the Spartans noogies, super-wedgies and a crop of toilet-swirlies.

There’s still a game against both this year to beat back the hands of time, but even if Michigan State can beat those long odds in either contest against the Buckeyes and Wolverines, it might just be delaying the inevitable.

Sorry Spartan fans, but this year might just be the beginning of a new era in East Lansing. Dantonio is too good of a coach to let things regress back to the Bobby Williams or John L. Smith days, but there’s just too much going against the Green and White now.

When one program rises, another must fall — at least to some extent — and there’s a good chance that program resides about 65 miles northwest of Ann Arbor where things are beginning to blaze red hot.

The truth is; to remain at the level Dantonio fought so hard to get the program to is going to be a tough, tough proposition amongst the new neighbors that have moved into the neighborhood. The grass is still green and well manicured, and the house still has a great front-door appeal, but when compared to others, it’s about to lose its luster.

Simply put, it’ll take more than a Spartan effort to keep the program in championship form.


Phil Harrison is the lead Big Ten writer for Catch his analysis and opinion all-season long.