The Unforeseen Leap
There are many occurrences in the sports world that seem to catch sports fans off guard. Many of these occurrences seem random on the surface but when looked at more closely, they aren’t so random at all. Take the 2001 New England Patriots for example. The Patriots seemed like a Cinderella football team whose luck preceded its talent. Even after getting to the Super Bowl, the Patriots were a double digit underdog to the Rams. The Patriots beat the Rams and still had to face the excuse that the Rams just played poorly. Having five years of history on our side now, it seems silly to suggest that the Patriots had no business making the Super Bowl. Nobody would’ve predicted the Patriots in the Super Bowl at the beginning of the 2001 season but looking back, all of the signs were there.
There have been many times where a team or a program makes the “leap” without any warning. In hindsight, the warnings signs are usually there however small they may be. It’s just a matter of picking up on the signs. I have a sneaking suspicion that the next program to sneak up on people and become a contender is the Michigan State football program. It’s important to understand that I’m not saying that MSU will become a national championship contender, nor am I saying that the legitimacy of the program will take place this season or next. I’m not suggesting that the Spartans will be good this year or next year. I’m suggesting that the program is undergoing a reformation that will make MSU good every season.
The “warning signs” that foretell Michigan St.’s future success aren’t that subtle to me but may be for anyone who might have a bias against MSU. I believe that 25% (at least) of Ohio St., Notre Dame, and Michigan St.’s success comes as a result of the Michigan football program. Over the last 13 years, Notre Dame has been just a shadow of a once great national power. In an attempt to “right the ship”, Notre Dame has been through a long list of coaches. Each coach brought an inferior Notre Dame team into the Michigan game only to come away with a victory. A victory over Michigan for a struggling team is generally rejuvenation for any program, let alone a struggling program. This happened four times in eight years. I firmly believe that, if Michigan would’ve beaten Notre Dame in those years, the Notre Dame program would’ve continued on the decline. Each Notre Dame win gave legitimacy to their football program and aspirations of regaining national prominence. Michigan left the door open for Notre Dame to rebound. Bob Davie couldn’t complete the job. Tyrone Willingham couldn’t either. Sooner or later (could be this year), Notre Dame will get the talent to beat everyone and not just Michigan. If Michigan couldn’t beat Notre Dame when the Notre Dame program was down, how are they going to beat them when the program is running on all cylinders? We got a taste of this in the late 80’s/early 90’s.
Michigan Didn't Capitalize
Since 1998, Michigan has lost 3+ games in six out of seven seasons. That would be troubling for any college football program that considers itself among the elite, but it is even more troubling considering that Michigan’s three primary rivals (Ohio St., Notre Dame, and Michigan St.) were nowhere near Michigan in terms of on-field success and recruiting. Ohio St. was certainly better in 1998 but even Ohio St. fans will admit that the three-year stretch that produced 15 losses and a missed bowl game was a down cycle for the Buckeye program. On the flip-side, Nebraska’s main rivals (Oklahoma and even Texas to some extent) were down during the mid/late 90’s and the Cornhuskers responded with three national championships. Since then, Oklahoma and Texas have become elite programs. Even if Nebraska hadn’t experienced a drop-off in talent from the Frank Solich years, they would still have a hard time duplicating their success in the 90’s. Nebraska’s rivals/primary competition improved which stifled Nebraska’s ability to dominate. A college football program cannot count on its rivals to remain dormant. Sooner (no pun intended) or later, those schools will rebound and rebuild and you will have to contend with them.
Michigan wasn’t able to do what Nebraska did when Oklahoma was down and that will help MSU. That leads me to one of the most telling warning signs of MSU’s impending success. Michigan has a tremendous advantage over Michigan St. in recruiting. Michigan’s football program is possibly the most historic and most successful program in college football history. Michigan Stadium seats 111,000+. Success breeds success. Michigan has had it. Michigan St. hasn’t. Just a few seasons ago, Michigan and Michigan St. were in a recruiting battle for LaMarr Woodley and Jerome Jackson. They were both from Saginaw which has been a Michigan St. breeding ground for football and basketball. If the Michigan and Michigan St programs were equal, I suspect that Woodley and Jackson would’ve gone to E. Lansing. However, Woodley and Jackson saw Michigan as the place that would lead them to success in college as well as a chance at the NFL. Thus, they both headed to Ann Arbor. The Saginaw high school football community watched Woodley and Jackson head to Michigan to do bigger and better things. It was akin to a high school student picking a school far from home because it offered more opportunities.
The exact same thing happened with two recruits from Ohio. Prescott Burgess and Shawn Crable were in a hotly contested recruiting battled between Michigan and Ohio St. Some Ohio kids grow up disliking Ohio St. Mario Manningham comes to mind. For those kids, the success of the programs really doesn’t make the difference. I suspect Manningham had his mind made up long ago. However, Burgess and Crable were obviously interested in both programs. For an elite high school football player from Ohio to consider going someplace other than Ohio St., the school in consideration must offer something that Ohio St. can’t. There is no question that when Burgess and Crable were making their decisions, the Michigan football program was in better shape than the Ohio St. football program. Ohio St. just hired a new coach. They had just come off of back to back losses to S. Carolina in bowl games and missed going to a bowl game in 2000. Burgess and Crable chose the more stable and successful UM program. Woodley, Jackson, Burgess and Crable all chose to go to UM over a school closer to home. I can only guess that these decisions were made because the reward seemed to be higher at Michigan. Now the question that I have is; what have these four players gotten from Michigan that they wouldn’t have gotten at Ohio St. or Michigan St.? The supposed reward of going to Michigan never really materialized for any of these players. Woodley is very good but he would’ve been good no matter where he played. I even think that Woodley may have been more successful at MSU in terms of individual success. He would’ve been far and away the most talented player on the MSU defense for four seasons.
None of these players has ever finished in the top five in the polls. None of these players has a winning record against Ohio St. or Notre Dame. None of these players have been on the field for a win in a bowl game. I think that the reward that Michigan offers over other programs is at its greatest when the other programs are downtrodden. Michigan had free reign over Midwest-recruits with ND, OSU, and MSU all experiencing down years. Not only did Michigan not seize the opportunity with a string of elite seasons, but they actually managed to drop off from an average of two losses per year under Bo Schembechler to an average of three losses per year under Gary Moeller/Lloyd Carr. A drop-off in performance when your competition is down is a recipe for disaster. Michigan could’ve taken the “bull by the horns” and dominated but instead they mostly remained the same.
The more I talk about this, the more obvious MSU’s future success becomes. Why would Saginaw kids go to Michigan? Why would Ohio kids go to Michigan? Michigan is the safe pick when OSU and MSU are down. OSU isn’t down anymore partially because Michigan didn’t keep them down. I fear the same thing will happen with MSU. Michigan still loses to MSU too often. Going to Michigan hasn’t paid off for Woodley or Jackson. In fact, I am all but certain that Woodley and Jackson would’ve been better off at MSU. All it takes is a glimmer of hope at a school like OSU, MSU or Notre Dame for elite high school football players to pick those schools. OSU and ND were both down in talent just a few years ago. OSU is now one of the elite programs in college football. ND is lining up top 100 recruits like they’re USC. They were sleeping giants. Michigan helped wake them up. Nobody will confuse Michigan St. with Ohio St. or Notre Dame in terms of notoriety and success but look what happened to the Michigan St. basketball program when Michigan disappeared into probation oblivion. MSU took off and became a top five basketball program. Don’t underestimate the selling power of Michigan St. MSU has a better college football history than Iowa and look at Iowa. I believe that kids from Saginaw and Flint will stop seeing Michigan as the end-all for college football and start going back to Michigan St. I think Michigan St.’s talent level will increase incrementally for the next few years until it’s a legitimate top 20 threat year in and year out.
Michigan St. Has Something to Do With It
What I’ve mentioned so far has little/nothing to do with Michigan St. I’ve simply listed the impact that I think Michigan’s blasé performances will have on MSU much like the impact that those performances have had on Ohio St. and Notre Dame. The fact of the matter is that the most obvious sign of Michigan St’s impending success is John L. Smith. Nobody will mistake Smith for a defensive genius unless of course you’re related to Jim Herrmann. However, Smith’s offensive schemes and philosophy have already given Michigan troubles. It took an injury to MSU’s quarterback to even give Michigan a chance to win last season. Smith had Michigan dazed and confused with an enormous talent disadvantage. I think even Michigan St. fans would admit that Michigan’s backups would overwhelmingly be starters at MSU. Michigan fans like to rip on John L. Smith but the bottom line is that he’s an offensive wizard. MSU will always be a threat on offense because Smith maximizes production with the scheme and not with the players. If he gets talented players, it’ll just make the offense that much better. Smith is good enough for MSU to compete now, not to mention when the recruits start coming.
As most Michigan fans can attest to from the 2000 and 2004 seasons, having an offensive juggernaut does not guarantee great things. MSU found that out last season. However, to think that Smith will just sit back and allow MSU to be poor on the defensive side of the ball for the next 20 years would be extremely naïve. Going to a school with such a potent offense as MSU would be a defensive coordinator’s dream. Once MSU starts finishing in the top 25, defensive coordinators will be lining up to coach at MSU. With an offense that good, the pressure on the defensive coaches isn’t as great. Now, imagine MSU with John L. Smith coaching the offense and a top defensive coordinator coaching the defense. It doesn’t look pretty for Michigan. I understand that there are a lot of people out there that think Michigan is the end-all of the college football world. I know that most people think that Michigan’s success is a given. However, Michigan had free-reign over its main rivals and one by one, those rivals are coming back to the national spotlight.
Notre Dame and Ohio St. are now just as potent in recruiting as Michigan. Michigan will no longer have the talent advantage over those two schools. Even with the talent advantage, UM’s success was marginal at best. Michigan will still get Ohio players but the overwhelming majority of Ohio’s best players will go to Ohio St. Flint and Saginaw have enough talent to give MSU a boost in the arm. Michigan St. doesn’t have to recruit like Michigan. They showed that last season in the Big House. In my opinion, if Ohio St., Notre Dame and Michigan St. are all rolling, Michigan’s success will either remain the same or taper off. If three and four loss seasons are good for the fan-base, then remaining the same might not be that bad. I think we will find out very soon that Weiss, Smith, and Tressell do not suck. There are a few Michigan fans among the base that are happy with back to back Big Ten Championships. That’s enough for Northwestern but Michigan generally has higher expectations. Most Michigan players talk about winning the National Championship before every season.
I want to address two points that I think will help clear up some of my statements. First, when I say that Ohio St., Notre Dame, and Michigan St.’s success is “25% (or more)” dependent on Michigan; I don’t mean to take anything away from those schools. Those schools are more than capable of winning on their own. I’m basically talking about recruiting. I simply mean that when those schools are/were down (like they have/had been) Michigan can hurt their ability to rebuild with tremendous success. It is common sense that recruits will overwhelmingly choose a strong program over a struggling program. If Michigan was going 11-1 and 10-2 every year during this stretch, I don’t think you would’ve seen Ohio St. rebound as fast and as boldly as they did. For instance, almost as soon as Tressell was named head coach, he predicted that Ohio St. would beat Michigan the next season. Sure enough, Ohio St. came in and beat Michigan. That speaks volumes to recruits. A Michigan win would’ve slowed down Ohio St.’s comeback. The same can be said for Notre Dame. A perfect example of this is the struggling Michigan basketball program. MSU took off in basketball once Michigan got into trouble with the NCAA. They won the National Championship. They made four final fours. They became the dominant team in the Big Ten. There was no way that Michigan was going to rebuild with Michigan St. dominating. Michigan St.'s success kept Michigan from any semblance of a successful recruiting class. Just in the last few years, Michigan St. has tailed off a bit and that has led to a minor resurgence in Michigan's recruiting. Michigan St. essentially held down the Michigan program for six years by seizing the opportunity. If MSU didn't improve one bit after the UM sanctions, then Michigan would've had an easy path back to prominence. Michigan St. took control of the situation and made sure Michigan couldn't come back. That's how you capitalize on an opponent's down cycle. Michigan St. did it in basketball. Michigan didn't do it in football. That's why you're seeing Ohio St.'s program flourishing and Notre Dame becoming a big factor in recruiting despite a decade of lackluster succes. If Michigan beat Notre Dame in every year that they had more talent, then I don’t think there would be much more than a glimmer of hope for Notre Dame. Michigan’s underachievement gave Notre Dame hope. Ohio St. might be a little different because they had a very good program in the mid 90’s but, again, if Michigan would’ve taken off as an elite program with Ohio St. down in the late 90’s/early 2000, I think it would’ve been more difficult for Ohio St. to come back. That’s all I’m saying. I’m not saying that any success those schools have can be attributed to Michigan or that those schools can only be good if Michigan struggles.
The second point is that I’m not so full of Michigan-bias that I think Michigan is the center of the college football world. It may seem that way because I stated that Michigan has a direct impact on the success of ND, OSU, and MSU. As I mentioned, I’m only speaking of recruiting. For instance, Iowa has rebuilt their program into a National Power and Michigan has had really nothing to do with that. Iowa does not recruit the same players as Michigan. Michigan’s success has little to no impact on Iowa’s recruiting. However, Michigan’s success does have an impact on Notre Dame, Ohio St. and Michigan St.’s recruiting especially when those programs are down. Michigan relies on three main areas for recruiting success; 1) In-state, 2) Ohio, and 3) Midwest. When Notre Dame, Ohio St. and Michigan St. were all down, Michigan took who they wanted from those three areas. Michigan underachieved while having “free reign” which brought the other schools back into the picture. This is how those areas stand today; 1). In-State will likely become more of a fight with MSU especially with offensive recruits 2). Ohio is now a fight with Ohio St., and 3) is now a fight with Notre Dame. Michigan will no longer have the pick of the litter. They were granted somewhat of a reprieve the last few years because Pennsylvania sent over a few talented high school stars but that won’t be a given every year. Michigan now has a fight on its hands in every recruiting area. This will take a toll on the talent level. I’m not predicting the decline of the Michigan program or impending doom. I’m only saying that things will not get better for Michigan. The three and four loss seasons will be a staple for future Michigan teams. I mentioned this in a post earlier this week; Pandora’s Box for Ohio St., Notre Dame and Michigan St. has been opened.
Sparty is NEXT
I wanted to write this before the Michigan St.-Notre Dame game tomorrow. I figured that, if I wrote this after the game, I would be accused of jumping on the bandwagon if Michigan St. were to win. I also figured that I would be accused of jumping on the Notre Dame bandwagon if Notre Dame wins. The reality is that this year really has nothing to do with how I feel. I’m talking about continued success in the future. I’m talking about the legitimacy of the MSU program. Michigan St. will no longer only be a factor every three years. The warning signs are there. It’s only a matter of whether or not you choose to ignore them or brace for the likelihood that MSU is on the verge of success. Michigan left the door open for these schools. Ohio St. smashed down the door. Notre Dame is smashing down the door right before our eyes. It would be extremely naïve to think that MSU won’t be lining up to break through the door next.