If you’re confused, brother, join the freaking club. Magazine guru and Helvetica Narrow champion Phil Steele planted a flag on local backsides last week, sashaying out to the edge of his ESPN digital limb and tapping Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio as among his 13 FBS coaches on the hot seat in 2017:
Dantonio rated about a zero on my hot seat list last season. Michigan State stumbled to 3-9 last year, and this offseason, multiple Spartans players have been charged with sexual assault. His inclusion on this list will surprise many, but keep an eye on what happens during 2017, and don’t be surprised if there’s a change at the end of the year.
Which is kind of funny, because on Steele’s blog back on June 27, his Stock Market Indicator formula — which factors in a team’s recent history as a typical program benchmark — projected the Spartans to be in line for a plus-8.5 win improvement this fall, tied for tops in all of FBS with Marshall.
So Gang Green is either going to get Dantonio run out on a rail or … win the East again. And ne’er the twain.
Which makes the Spartans even harder than usual to peg, now that pegging season is officially upon us. And makes Dantonio — stoic, understated Mark Dantonio, a man whose cards are clutched so tightly to his chest the ace of spades can hear his heartbeat — the most interesting man at Big Ten Media Days when the party kicks off at the end of July.
— TheUnofficialVisit (@TheUNOVisit) July 12, 2017
Welcome to 2017 in East Lansing, the Year of The Fork in the Road. What’s it gonna be? East? Or west?
For nearly a decade, the Spartans were the pie in the face of conventional thought, the little green engine that couldn’t, surely. And did. And did. And did. And did. And did.
But now? Now the Big Ten’s plucky Rodney Dangerfields are the league’s biggest stinking enigma. Wobbles happen. Twelve wins and a league title in 2015 to nine losses and chaos last fall was Wile E. Coyote wobbling off a cliff.
Worse yet are the accusations of rot from the inside, the hubris of a heavyweight, the classic earmarks of a leadership vacuum. More than a half-dozen underclassmen since November have transferred. Star defensive lineman Malik McDowell was a literal and metaphoric no-show. One of McDowell’s teammates allegedly punched a taxi driver; another allegedly spit on a parking enforcement officer.
And where the blotter wasn’t ridiculous, it was awful. Former defensive end Auston Robertson was charged in April with raping a woman in her apartment and is one of four ex-Spartans facing sexual assault charges.
A program that so impressed skeptics with its guts in Dantonio’s first 10 seasons has spent much of the last four months or so trying to regain its soul.
Three players charged with sexual assault during a reported January incident are gone, as is recruiting director Curtis Blackwell. The details as reported are unsavory if also unproven in a court of law. University President Lou Anna Simon has hailed Dantonio’s adherence to university protocol and noted that his response as “above reproach.” To the rational outside of Waco, Texas, the Baylor saga has proven to be an instructive, sobering eye-opener.
What’s it gonna be? North? Or south? This fall tiptoes into the picture as a litmus test, a chance to prove that 2016 was one of those awful, weird, random exceptions — the way 2012 was at Iowa — as opposed to some new, rudderless rule.
Which puts the onus on Dantonio — who has survived more than a few small brush fires thanks to a combination of resolve and results — to clean house, dig deep and draw very clear, very firm boundaries.
When Sparty is right, it’s pure meat-and-potatoes stuff, the ground-and-pound, ball-control mantra cut from the same blue-collar cloth as the Hawkeyes and Wisconsin Badgers. The fury of the forever scorned.
So, yeah, basically, less angry off the field and more angry on it. Taking the unsavory 2016 ratio of 27 sacks surrendered to 11 sacks recorded and reversing those numbers would be a step in the right direction. Or six.
And if you don’t believe us, believe our man Phil, who wrote a year ago that:
The Spartans play best with a chip on their shoulder. Last year (2015) they came in as the preseason No. 5 team and played differently than in years past. Well, the chip is back! They will not be in the top 10 and all the talk is “Michigan or Ohio State” to win the East. Well, this just in, Michigan State beat both of those teams on the road last year (with a combined 37-15 edge in first downs) and gets them both at home this year! The Spartans also avoid Iowa and Nebraska out of the West. They are one of the least experienced teams in the country according to my ratings, with just 10 returning starters. But Mark Dantonio will have them coached up and they are back in their preferred spot of being overlooked.
Yeah, but not this overlooked. With Ohio State and Michigan reloading and Penn State ascending, Michigan State is a big ball of who-the-hell-knows in a division as unforgiving as No. 11 at Augusta National.
Until the Spartans can find a pass rush, a reliable pocket and a sense of equilibrium again, the burning questions will continue to outnumber the answers. Because this bad boy is destined to land one of two ways, and the road they’re on at present goes straight off a bridge.