COLUMN: MSU football facing an identity crisis going into crucial spring
Jump back to one year ago today.
The MSU football team was just a few weeks removed from an appearance in the second edition of the College Football Playoff. Consequently, the vibes surrounding the Spartans were completely different compared to say, the ones now. But that’s what happens when a team goes from Big Ten champions to .
Sure, the blowout against the Alabama Crimson Tide was a rough one. However, routs of that magnitude happen even to the blue bloods of college football — evidenced by Ohio State University’s 31-0 loss to Clemson just a few weeks ago.
The point is, though, the Spartans were still competitive, especially on the national stage.
After three straight years of being a top program in college football — laying claim to a Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl Classic — a golden age of Spartan football shined upon East Lansing.
Yes, there were bumps and bruises along the way, but the Spartans were finally relevant again. Momentum graced the Spartans’ sides, with no clear end in sight.
Around the nation, the consensus was similar — the Spartans were a powerhouse program supplanted at the top for the long haul.
Keep in mind, after 2015, the team was gutted largely of its All-Big Ten talent as the winningest class in MSU history departed. Those Spartans left a legacy of fame and fortune a once-tortured fan base could only dream of.
Despite the upheaval on the roster, though, MSU earned the benefit of the doubt, debuting the AP poll as No. 12 in the nation.
Through the years, the Spartans largely played the “chip on the shoulder” and disrespect card often, the ranking represented the type of respect and admiration head coach Mark Dantonio and his program garnered during the dominant three-year stretch.
Then the season started and it all came crashing down. Falling to then-No. 11 Wisconsin, 30-6, was just the start of the nightmarish season.
The low point of the grueling marathon came when the once-mighty Spartans fell to the lowly Illinois Fighting Illini, 31-27. The game was a microcosm of the season — dominate for early stretches of the game, only to inexplicably disappoint down the stretch.
The reigning Big Ten champions’ campaign would progressively find ways to shatter the hearts of the Spartan faithful.
As the losses kept piling on, the fan support was a bleak comparison to its once proud self. By the time the season was over, the student section was bare and naked, beat writers taking pictures of rows upon rows of empty bleachers.
Soon, National Signing Day will be upon us as MSU looks to sign recruits to bolster its roster. After that, spring football will be in full swing, eventually culminating in the annual Green and White game in April.
College football, like many things in life, works within a cycle. The offseason hits, then spring ball, conditioning, training camp and finally, the season is ready to kick off. A progression of steps to get to the final product, only to start all over again.
Just one year after a dominant season, the Spartans are at a crossroads. Put bluntly, MSU is at ends with an identity crisis, a natural reaction after a soul-searching 2016.
Dantonio has brought the program to enormous heights at MSU, much of which hasn’t been seen in a half century. How he and his staff respond to the adversity, though, is what will define the rest of his time as head coach.
The Spartans could prove that 2016 was just a down season, one mired by injuries and missed opportunities. In other words, it was a blemish on an otherwise spectacular MSU career for Dantonio.
On the other end of the spectrum, though, the 3-9 season could trigger the beginning of the end of the Spartan golden age.
If 2017 proves to be as disastrous as 2016 was, even Dantonio’s seat will heat up. While it’s arguably not the ideal course of action to dismiss the head coach after just two down seasons, fan outcry might reach a boiling point for Athletic Director Mark Hollis.
This upcoming spring season and accompanying practices will set the tone as players jostle for positions within the depth chart.
Last year, the intra-squad scrimmage was a fun event for fans and athletes alike, another opportunity to tailgate as the weather around Michigan picked up. This time around, though, the vibe will unforgivably chastise the crowd, a sense of questioning in the air about the future of the Spartans and their aspirations.
Before the season kicked off, Curtis Blackwell tweeted a cheeky photo to a phrase coined by former legendary University of Michigan head coach Bo Schembechler. “Those who have stayed are already champions,” the image blared with an accompanying three Big Ten championship banners.
Yes, poking fun at your arch nemesis whom you beat seven out of the last eight times — at the time — might rile the fans up for the start of the season. But now the circumstances are dire, and the Spartans must sift through a myriad of their own issues first before ever doing that again.
In a handful of weeks, football will be back in full swing, at least for the spring portion. If the Spartans want any chance to make noise on the national level, improving every day by 3 percent will be an important step, as Dantonio stresses to his team.
With the emergence of Penn State University as a national powerhouse, the Big Ten East division will continue being one of the best divisions in college football, as the Nittany Lions accompany the Buckeyes and Wolverines as MSU’s direct rivals.
Luckily for the Spartans, strong adversaries in the past was a consistent obstacle they surpassed to reach their goals. If they want to get back to the greener pastures, though, they will have to take it step by step, which starts in the spring.