As a lifelong Michigan State football fan, there is that sense of impending doom that often materializes sometime near the first 1/3rd of the season. It's a feeling that all of ones high hopes for the season are about to come crashing down to earth. Thankfully, this has rarely happened in the Mark Dantonio era--with '09 being the only year that comes to mind--but it has occurred many, many other years under the regimes of Darryl Rogers, Muddy Waters, George Perles, Nick Saban (yes, even Saban), Bobby Williams, and (shudder) John L. Smith. I fear that it could be about to happen this year.
I watched the MSU/EMU game at my brother's house in Owosso. He and his wife were having a house-warming party. I thought that by the time we arrived at his house at 4:30, the game would be a complete Spartan blowout and I could ignore the game and spend more time socializing. I certainly did not expect a life-and-death struggle with the lowly Eagles. I sat with my dad on the couch, drinking a Leinenkugel and imploring someone, anyone, to catch a damned pass.
MSU's football team is at a crossroads this season: either the offense will not improve and the team is headed for a 3-5 or 2-6 record in the Big Ten, or the team has bottomed out, Dantonio's fury will make the players catch fire, and the offense will improve just enough to carry the team to a good Big Ten record (6-2 perhaps) in a year in which the conference is terrible. All I know is that someone besides Dion Sims has to step up as a viable receiving threat, or we could be in for a long season.
The one thing helping MSU is that the Big Ten is god-awful. Let's take a look at the teams:
Minnesota 4-0 with no wins that really stand out as impressive. I'm sorry, but a triple overtime win over 1-3 UNLV doesn't blow me away, nor does a 17-10 home win over 1-3 Syracuse. Jerry Kill does have the program headed in the right direction, but I am not sold on them quite yet.
Northwestern The Wildcats are also 4-0, and at least deserve credit for beating three teams from BCS conferences, although Syracuse, Vanderbilt, and Boston College are hardly powerhouses.
Ohio State Probably the best of the unbeatens, with a stout defense and a playmaking quarterback in Braxton Miller. However, they were uimpressive in their win over UAB, but the Buckeyes often seem to sleepwalk against weak non-conference opponents. I'm still not quite sure what to make of OSU.
The undisputed bad teams...
Let's start off with Iowa. The Hawkeyes are horrible: losing to a middling MAC school at home is inexcusable (just ask Michigan State). Illinois is also bad, getting shellacked by Louisiana Tech at home. Indiana barely beat Indiana State and lost to Ball State. Add the Hoosiers to the list of lousy Big Ten teams.
The jury is still deliberating on these teams...
Michigan State might have the best defense in the conference, but the offense is struggling mightily. The Ohio State game is a pivotal for the Spartans. As I've stated over and over on this blog (and it's no secret to anyone who follows MSU) the Spartans must find one or two more players who can actually catch a ball consistently.
Denard Robinson was horrible against Notre Dame, but Michigan's defense played well and the Wolverines only lost by a touchdown. Michigan has a bye week before starting the Big Ten season on the road against Purdue. That is a game that will tell us a lot more about both teams.
Of the three Big Ten teams that played Notre Dame, Purdue was the closest to actually winning. The Boilermakers may be the best team in the conference, which is akin to being the world's tallest dwarf. (No offense intended towards dwarfs).
After an awful start to the season, Penn State is actually presenting a pulse. The Nittany Lions may still end up in the "undisputed bad teams" category, but after two consecutive wins I will give them the benefit of a doubt.
For all the offensive woes that MSU has experienced this season, Wisconsin's are even worse: The Badgers are currently ranked 113th among all FBS teams in passing yardage, 88th in rushing, and 102nd in points scored. (MSU's ranks in those three categories are 61, 55, and 104--as a whole, slightly better than Wisconsin). Danny O'Brien hasn't come close to adequately replacing Russell Wilson, and Montee Ball's struggles are mystifying. The Badgers may still end up in the ranks of the terrible.
The Badgers' first Big Ten game is against Nebraska, a team that has played well, with the exception of a road loss to UCLA. Nebraska could end up as Big Ten champion.
All told, an inauspicious start for the Big Ten. But it was probably inevitable. The best football players in the nation are in the South and West. The Midwest has been losing its population and economic clout for four decades, and football--the most expensive of sports--has declined here also. The Big Ten as a second-tier football conference may be the new reality.