Turk: Does MSU’s place in title race feel familiar? It should

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A year after going 3-9, Michigan State is two small wins and two big wins away from a Big Ten title. Take out the 3-9 and it sounds like most of this decade, doesn’t it?

This year’s team is different. Very different. But Mark Dantonio’s ability to win games is different from almost any other coach in college football. Two Big Ten titles in a three-year span, a Rose Bowl win, two New Year’s Six appearances in the three years we’ve seen of the College Football Playoff, with a third still possible.

An early loss in non-conference play hasn’t had a negative effect on the season. It didn’t have that effect on a Rose Bowl-winning team in 2013 or the Cotton Bowl-winning 2014 team. Am I predicting a win of that magnitude in 2017? Not yet. But to be in this situation in November, it was something not even the biggest Spartan fans saw coming.

It was difficult to project this level of success in August. On paper, it sounded almost like the second year of a rebuild. A former walk-on at defensive end. A true freshman at cornerback. Three sophomores on the defensive line. Twelve career catches returning at receiver.

If you can guess who those players are, that’s not surprising. Each of those underclassmen have burst onto the scene in 2017, and perhaps more importantly, they’re each likely going to play major roles on 2018’s team as well. It’s hard not to get excited about the amount of production returning next year.

“We’ve got a number of players who have not gone to a bowl game because we missed one year and we have young freshmen and true freshmen,” head coach Mark Dantonio said at Tuesday’s weekly press conference.  “Everybody is excited about the next thing.”

Just being in the conversation is something that has seemed so familiar under Dantonio. Outside of a 7-6 2012 season and the aforementioned 2016 season, MSU has continued to be in position to play for Big Ten titles in November every year since 2010. “November is for contenders,” the coaching staff said last weekend after their win over Penn State.

The fact that this team, written off before the season and after their losses against Notre Dame and at Northwestern, is in the position they are, is the biggest achievement for Dantonio’s tenure. Any school can get hot for a year, but only the best teams in the country stay in their conference’s title race year after year.

Which brings us to Columbus. Recent history suggests that MSU has a pretty decent shot. Take last year’s record out of the equation, and it feels a lot like 2015. The Spartans arrive in a hostile environment, probably the toughest in the country, and face talent mismatches on paper. OSU possesses an elite defensive line, one that is on par with Michigan’s, if not better.

The Spartans looked adequate for a half in less rainy conditions when they played the Wolverines in September, and while Penn State did get pressure last weekend, Brian Lewerke was able to show some pocket presence and get the ball downfield. Lewerke will have to do the same thing again on Saturday to give Michigan State’s offense a chance.

It’s easy to draw the comparisons between Lewerke’s place in this team and the role that Kirk Cousins and Connor Cook did early in their careers. Both of Lewerke’s predecessors took the reins of the MSU offense in their sophomore years. Both saw time as a freshman, but Cousins’ sophomore season was a middling 6-7 before leading the Spartans to back-to-back Big Ten titles. Cook’s 13-1 Rose Bowl-winning mark as a sophomore is impressive, but was mainly carried by an overwhelming defense.

Lewerke’s sophomore season has trended upwards after taking a few games to get rolling. There have been performances this year where the offense has struggled — taking three and a half quarters to move the ball against Indiana springs to mind — but on the whole, Lewerke is still a young quarterback that headlines this Spartan team’s trip to the top of the Big Ten East.

The defense is excellent, as usual. However, when MSU’s defenses have been at their best in seasons past it has come behind experienced leaders with big roles in the defense. Chris Frey and Demetrius Cooper have been solid, especially Cooper, but they aren’t the stars of this defense. Sophomores and freshmen lead this defense, and it has been more of an across-the-board effort in terms of making plays.

On paper, Ohio State are favorites. They have supposedly more talent than the Spartans. Of course, so did Penn State last week. So did Michigan when the Spartans reclaimed the Paul Bunyan Trophy earlier this season. At this point, it’s pointless to count out Dantonio and his teams.

Any way you slice this matchup, it looks like Ohio State holds a slight edge at most positions on the field. But in any game of this magnitude, it can come down to which coach has the four-leaf clover in their back pocket. Dantonio’s brought more talented teams into these types of situations – and won. After Saturday, are we really going to be blown away if Michigan State finds a way to win this game?

If we were talking about any other coach, or any other team, it might be a different story.

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