January 2, 2011

DotComp: Misery seeks bowl history company and finds it

ORLANDO, Fla. - I thought Michigan State was closer than this to college football's elite. In no way did I think the Spartans were among the top five or six teams in America, but I thought they could masquerade a little longer than 10 minutes with a very good Alabama team in the Capital One Bowl, here on New Years Day.

As it turned out, Alabama was better than merely "very good" in this game. On a given day, Alabama can go up 21 points on any team in the country, as the Crimson Tide showed in their most recent game, against No. 1-ranked Auburn. And if there were a 16-team college football playoff this year, I would pick Alabama to win it all. I wouldn't be the only one.

I heard several Alabama media say after the game that this was the best, most complete game the Tide had played all year. A credit to Bama, or a discredit to Michigan State? I think a little bit of both. But the result left many wondering why these two teams were matched with one another.

I'll leave that one to SpartanMag.com member CDutch and his post last night on the Bunker: "MSU overachieved this season, Alabama underachieved...it made for a bad matchup."

In trying to gain some closure and understanding on this demolition, let's consider the opponent, and snapshots from history in which other developing programs experienced similar blowout losses on New Years Day:

The Opponent

Mark Dantonio, Kirk Cousins and Trenton Robinson offered no excuses. There were none of the "we came out flat" comments that losing players often fall back on, rather than acknowledging that the opponent was superior. They all realized the Spartans had never been hit on the chin quite like this. If Mills Lane had been here, he would have tried to stop the fight in the second quarter.

"They won up front," Dantonio said. "That's the difference. The physicality that goes along with that is affecting the quarterback, running the football, punishing a runner. We didn't do that with the consistency that we needed to to win this football game, nowhere near."

I thought MSU could hang in this game, if Alabama arrived sleepy and half-interested. Instead, Alabama surprised even its own fans and critics with a focused, motivated game.

"They played hard," said MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins, who also seemed surprised. "They played inspired. I don't know what the reason was for losing three games, but maybe it was a lack of inspiration, but today they had that so I think they were very good team who was playing at their highest level and they're going to be tough to beat when they're doing that."

Which leads to the question: Why didn't Alabama play this well all season?

One answer is that the SEC is just that good. Well, it is a good league, the best in the nation again this year. But after seeing South Carolina go down to Kentucky, and barely manage to compete against Florida State in its bowl game earlier in the week, I blame Bama for failing to show up against South Carolina in that game rather than chalking up that loss to the depth of the conference.

The LSU loss? The Auburn loss? First of all, the people at that schools hate Saban even more than MSU fans. (By the way, Saban won back a lot of respect and approval from MSU fans in the past 30 days, with all of the nice things he said about the university and East Lansing, and the fact that he tried to keep the margin of victory down against the Spartans on Saturday. He's still the finest jackass I've ever had the displeasure of meeting in my entire life, but he handled his p.r. extremely well this holiday season).

Saban has a history of seeing his players quit on him at bowl season. But he did a great job of helping his players find proper motivation for this game.

"Every game that we lost we got ahead in the game and we didn't finish," Saban said. "That was the big lesson about getting too satisfied with winning and looking at your scoreboard and not trying to dominate the competition. When you get ahead, you let up. When you have a good month, you don't work as hard the next month. It's life. It's the human condition.

"I think the players really showed the kind of pride they have in performance by the way they played in the game today. They could have set their bats and they didn't."

Short answer: He was successful in getting his players to compete against themselves, and not necessarily the opponent or the scoreboard. With that formula, plus a handful of key players gaining 100 percent health for the first time all year on a team that was riddled by injury more so than any other team Saban has had at Alabama, the Crimson Tide were able to gel and play like the preseason No. 1-ranked team everyone expected them to be this year.

Alabama is good. Damn good. You may not want to believe it or accept it. But MSU played up all season, won a date with a super power, and got nuked.

Get blown out in October, and fans are bothered by it. But there is always a game the next week, and altered goals to aspire to.

Get blown out in a bowl game, and people think the program is a disgrace. I come out of this game believing that just about any team outside of the national top 5 would not have been within four TDs of Alabama on this day.

Their d-line was phenomenal, RB Mark Ingram was the healthiest and quickest he has been all year, WR Julio Jones is going to be a millionaire in a few months, DE Courtney Upshaw was gave MVP, after finally getting over a high ankle sprain that bothered him all year. Alabama was without safety Mark Barron, but MSU rarely had a chance to probe the area of the field he usually patrols. I counted only one time when they missed him, and that was when his replacement, Will Lowery, was a step late in arriving at Michigan State TE Brian Linthicum during his lay-out catch inside the 10-yard line in the first half.

Forty-Nine to 7? Sometimes it happens to college football, you know. Even to pretty good teams. Sorry it ruined your watch party and embarrassed you in front of your frien-emies and in-laws. But MSU football is the same today as it was in October and November when the Spartans were stammering past Northwestern and Purdue sandwiched around a blowout loss at Iowa. If this blowout loss truly shocked you, then you have only been paying selective attention.

Count me among those who were partially fooled. I thought MSU had a chance to win this game, if Bama was hungover and hitting the snooze button. But even if Bama played had and played well, I still didn't expect to see virtually every MSU offensive lineman beaten by every Alabama defensive lineman on what seemed to be each and every snap of this football game. And that's not counting the blitzers.

Everyone acknowledged that Alabama had an edge in the trenches, but I didn't anticipate the decapitation that took place.

Michigan State entered this game in the Top 10. Many aspects of the team were Top 10 quality this year, mainly their ability to avoid mistakes on defense, and throw downfield against most opponents. But their offensive line has never been of Top 10 quality. Three of the five starters on the o-line were not recruited out of high school by Dantonio and his staff. It's a patchwork bunch. They are good guys, good soldiers, and over-achievers in their own right. But that is the area of the team that is taking the longest to rebuild.

I think evaluation and player development on the o-line is in very good hands on this team. I think a good o-line is coming. I'm not sure it will be next year, but I think the project is in good hands. None of that made a difference against the d-line and edge blitzers MSU faced on Saturday.

Does Saturday's loss, and the Big Ten's 0-5 record on New Years Day diminish the shine on Michigan State's portion of the Big Ten trophy? In the court of public opinion, yes.

MSU was one of the toughest kids in its own neighborhood this year, but the neighborhood didn't turn out to be all that tough. At least not as tough as the SEC. But I still contend that the Big Ten is every bit as good, or better than, the Big 12, the Pac-10, the ACC and the Big East.

The Big Ten had the misfortune of getting paired with three SEC teams on Southern soil on a hot day. Give me Iowa against Mississippi State instead of the pretenders from Michigan, and I think it's a 2-1 edge for the SEC. Penn State was down by 6 and driving in the red zone in the final minute. Bama blew out MSU. Fine, good, give a decided overall edge to the SEC, but the 3-0 record with two blowouts does not paint a complete picture of the Big Ten, in my opinion. The SEC is very good. But winning a share of the Big Ten title is a credible accomplishment. We'll know a little more when Ohio State plays Arkansas, although if I were a Big Ten fan I'd like to see that game played in 30-degree temperatures and a 15 mile an hour crosswind.

While we're playing make-believe, give me a healthy Dan Persa (first-team All-Big Ten QB) and Northwestern beats Texas Tech.

Does that move the needle for you?

If not, let's change drugs:

When Dantonio was hired, he said Michigan State would "measure up." He meant against Michigan. MSU has won three straight against the in-state rivals. At some point this season, "measuring up" took on a new meaning. Eventually, it meant measuring up to the challenge of winning at Penn State for the first time since 1965 in order to clinch a share of the Big Ten crown for the first time since 1990.

Having cleared that checkpoint, "measuring up" then became a quest to not only compete with defending National Champion Alabama, but defeat the Crimson Tide. Michigan State obviously failed miserably in that undertaking, but we also need to stop and consider that the measuring stick grew very tall, very quickly.

So they're not No. 5. But No. 15 is a great accomplishment. You don't think so? What if I had told you, a week after last year's loss in the Alamo Bowl, while watching Alabama beat Texas in the National Championship game, that this 6-7 Michigan State team would 360 days later meet Alabama in a New Years Day bowl game, and the Longhorns wouldn't even make the postseason?

Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

Similar Blowouts: Any Comfort in Commonality?

Michigan State learned it cannot play within four or five touchdowns of one of the very best teams in the nation when that team is harnessing its A-game. In the game of misery-loves-company, I am reminded of four other notable upstart programs that were demolished in the early stages of a rapid rebuilding process: Iowa in 1982, Oregon in 1994, Florida in 1995 and Illinois in 2007.

Three of those teams rebounded well from New Years Day humiliation. The fourth, Illinois, never quite got back up off the canvas.

  • In 1982, in year four under Hayden Fry, Iowa shockingly interrupted decades of Ohio State and Michigan dominance to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl. Iowa had not been to any bowl game in 23 years. Washington destroyed Iowa, 28-0.

    But Iowa continued to build. That season started a string of eight straight bowl seasons, and National Championship contention in the mid-1980s. Fry took Iowa to the Rose Bowl two more times, although he never won it. Still, Iowa enjoyed a landscape-changing rebirth as a program, overcoming a Rose Bowl embarrassment.

    [Okay, one big difference with MSU that I must address. The Spartans played in the Capital One Bowl just two years ago. I know, I know. But this year's MSU-Alabama game was a BCS-level matchup, pitting preseason No. 1, defending National Champion Alabama against the Big Ten tri-champion. In most other years, MSU would have captured the Big Ten tie-breaker and would have earned the right to get blown out by TCU in the Rose Bowl instead. This was a Capital One Bowl game in name and venue, but not in terms of the task and challenge MSU faced. Alabama was better than its record, and I think better than TCU. MSU's record merited a better bowl. So let's pretend this game was played in the old Cotton Bowl or something, just for the sake of argument.]

  • In 1994, Oregon went 9-2, won the Pac-10 and earned a New Years Day bowl bid for the first time in 36 years, under coach Rich Brooks. Oregon fell behind an undefeated Penn State team 38-14 and eventually lost 38-20.

    It wasn't nearly the same level of beatdown that MSU experienced. Oregon was competitive for three quarters, and piled up a lot of passing yards against Penn State.

    We all know that Oregon rose to become a national power in the years ahead. A blowout loss in a rebuilding program's first foray onto the major stage is not necessarily the foreshadowing of future pratfalls. Although Brooks left Oregon to go to the NFL after the Rose Bowl, his offensive coordiantor, Mike Bellotti, took over and continued the building process. The following year, Oregon was blown out by Colorado 38-6 in the Cotton Bowl, but eventually topped out with a victory over Colorado in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl.

    Bellotti had a good run, handed the program off to Chip Jones last year, and Oregon has been in the Rose Bowl and the National Championship game in the past two seasons.

    I'm not saying MSU is headed for that kind of success. I'm just saying that Oregon wasn't built in a day.

  • In 1995, Florida lost to Nebraska 62-24 in the National Championship game.

    Florida competed better, a little longer with the Huskers in that game than MSU did on Saturday, but I don't think anyone disputed that Florida deserved to be in that game, and that they were indeed the No. 2 team in America, regardless of the score. Florida, with Steve Spurrier in his fifth year as head coach, was clearly a rising program and a power in the making.

    Was that Florida better than this MSU team? Of course. Is Florida loaded with far more football resources than MSU? Absolutely. My point is that Florida came back stronger the next year, and took the next step, and won the National Championship. A demoralizing blowout loss in a bowl game doesn't mean that the loser was a fraud, and would be exposed in future bowl debacles.

    Now the bad examples:

  • In 1990, 2002 and 2007, under three different coaches, Illinois jumped onto the New Years Day stage, but then fell like Chevy Chase.

    In 1990, John Mackovic coached Illinois to a share of its first Big Ten title in nine years. Illinois went 8-3 record in the regular season in its third year under Mackovic. But that team lost 30-0 to Clemson in the Hall of Fame Bowl, which was a New Years Day game in those days.

    [Illinois went 6-5 the following year, earned a bowl bid, and Mackovic split for the head coaching job at Texas. So file this one away as an incomplete.]

    In 2001, Ron Turner coached the Illini to its first Big Ten title and New Years Day bid in 11 years. It was Turner's fifth year on the job. The Big Ten champ went to the Sugar Bowl that season, as it was Pasadena's turn to play host to the BCS championship. Turner's No. 7-ranked Illini fell behind Nick Saban's LSU team 34-7 at halftime (sound familiar) and eventually lost 47-34.

    Turner never had another winning season and was fired three years later.

    In 2007, Ron Zook led the Illini to a 9-3 record in the regular season and a Rose Bowl bid as the No. 2 selection of the Big Ten. But No. 6-ranked USC, a team some believed was as good as any in the nation, destroyed the Illini 49-17, in a game that wasn't as close as the score indicates.

    Zook followed up with two losing seasons and then this year snuck back into a bowl game with a 6-6 record. It's not a trend MSU hopes to follow under Dantonio.


    So what does it all mean?

    I'm not sure.

    Other than the fact that MSU over-achieved, had a terrific, wildly-entertaining season that any Spartan fan would have accepted in a heartbeat back in August.

    Then they met a destructive force in the postseason, one that any fair football fan would acknowledge was terrific when its engine was healthy and running properly.

    As for the foundation and the near future, I wouldn't suggest that MSU is on par with Florida of 1995. Oregon of '94? Maybe. Iowa of '82? Maybe. This is good news.

    Illinois of '90? No, because Dantonio is going to see this thing through, unlike Mackovick.

    Illinois of '01? No, because Turner didn't recruit well.

    Illinois of '07? No, because there is much more defensive discipline in this program than Illinois of '08 and '09. Zook made some improvements in that area this year, and needs to balance it with efficient skill play on offense. Call it another incomplete in Champaign, so far.

    And honestly, it's an incomplete in East Lansing right now too, in the idea that Saturday's game thudded to the ground in ugly fashion, and that none of us truly knows whether Dantonio is due future New Years Day dates and championship thrills, like Fry, or coming calamities, like those experienced in Champaign.

    My guess is that things will swing more similar to the Fry example than the Illini one. And if I were a Spartan fan, offered a Fry-like run by a football genie, I'd take it, just like I would have agreed to a date with Alabama 365 days ago, as attractively unlikely as it would have seemed.

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