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Editorial Section: Big Ten Roundtable, Part One

With Big Ten Media Days beginning today in Chicago, it’s time to discuss Jim Delany’s conference. The Student Section’s Big Ten roundtable will be presented in two parts. Today, we’ll focus on the heavyweights in the league. Tomorrow, in part two, we’ll tackle the newcomers (Maryland and Rutgers) and the topic of divisional realignment.

For predictions on the coming Big Ten season, associate editor Bart Doan stepped forward with his selections here at The Student Section.

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Question No. 1: Are we witnessing the beginning of an era in which Michigan State supplants Michigan as the annual elite contender to Ohio State, or is it too early to make such a statement?

Terry Johnson:

On Twitter @SectionTPJ

I’ll take it a step further and say that this era has already begun. The Spartans – not the Wolverines – will be the top challenger to Ohio State for the foreseeable future.

Let’s be honest: Michigan hasn’t played a significant role in the national championship race since 2006. Since that time, the Wolverines have posted just one 10-win season, and have only one top 15 finish.

By comparison, Michigan State has three 10-win seasons in the past four years, three top 15 finishes, a Big Ten championship, and a Rose Bowl trophy.

Let’s also not forget that the Spartans are the only Big Ten team that’s actually beaten Ohio State since Urban Meyer arrived.

Regardless of what metric is used, it’s clear that the Michigan State has the advantage. That’s not going to change anytime soon. Under the leadership of Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, the Spartans have become one of the top defensive units in the country, finishing no lower than 4th nationally in total defense since 2011.

Bart Doan:

On Twitter @TheCoachBart

College football is like a woman. Hard to explain and cyclical. That said, I personally think it’s either a function of modern media or a function of a newly developed character flaw in society that we have to have an answer to big picture things with every event that happens.

Sometimes, things don’t portend to something greater, nor do they foreshadow anything. It’s just what’s going on now. With that said, no to the answer to this question. There are certain programs in the nation that no matter how many doomsday columns you write about them being supplanted by a rival, it just won’t happen. The Texas A&M over Texas thing is nauseating. UCLA will never be USC. Auburn will never be Alabama.

Certain programs in college football are at Heaven’s Gate, always expected much of and with history so rich, they’ll never stay down for too long. Michigan is in that demographic. This isn’t a knock on Michigan State, because the Spartans certainly enter this season as the should-be favorite, but this isn’t some 20-year trend.

People forget that Michigan has won a national championship within the last 20 years. The Wolverines have made some mistakes, but it’s still Michigan. Kids still want to go there. The program still is the envy of most everyone, along with those like Alabama, USC, Notre Dame, Texas, and Oklahoma.

Let’s stop forcing the long view with everything and just enjoy the nights at the bar discussing all things of the world as what they are … a night at the bar. Not some indication of how the life landscape is changing.

Matt Zemek:

On Twitter @SectionMZ

The Spartans finally returned to the Rose Bowl this past season, putting the previous quarter of a century behind them. Yet, even before Michigan State made its Pasadena breakthrough, the Spartans had shown that they could contain Michigan’s offense. It’s been a long time since Michigan has been able to ring up big numbers against Michigan State. That underlying reality makes 2013 feel a lot more like the arrival of a new era in the Big Ten, one in which Michigan won’t thrive until it hires the next great coach.

Full disclosure: I thought Brady Hoke, when hired, would be the answer. More specifically, I thought Hoke was going to be able to steer Michigan back to the kind of football the school likes to play, the brand of ball witnessed under Lloyd Carr and his predecessors. Yet, Michigan has remained caught in between styles and personnel. There hasn’t been a clean transition from the Denard Robinson years. The arrival of a Chad Henne-style drop back quarterback has not yet occurred. Al Borges might be out as offensive coordinator, but is Doug Nussmeier going to be able to fix everything? It might be better if Michigan crashes this year, as opposed to going 8-4, just well enough to keep Hoke around but not well enough to suggest that a full restoration is about to take place. Hoke needs a much more emphatic season to indicate that he can bring the Wolverines back to a place of prominence. If you’re a Michigan fan, you’d much rather have a 10-2 record than an 8-4 record, but you might want a 6-6 record more than an 8-4 record so that the school can search for a coach who can match what Mark Dantonio is doing in East Lansing.

Question No. 2: Brady Hoke is responsible for Michigan’s problems in an immediate context, but are the Wolverines’ struggles in recent years a coaching problem, or more the result of poor decisions in the administrative realm (current or former athletic directors in particular)?

Bart Doan:

I’ve said pretty much all I needed to say on this topic over the past weekend on The Student Section. To make it a little more Cliff’s Notes so you don’t necessarily need to shove off to the bathroom at work to spend 5 minutes reading it, the blame is much to go around.

Michigan is making a ton of money, but the program is alienating fans with ticket policies that have seen a staggering 23 percent decrease in season ticket buyers from last season, and while Dave Brandon has spent and spent big on coordinators for Brady Hoke, the results have not been produced.

The hiring of Rich Rodriguez was a tire fire and turned out as such, but it’s a little to Teen Mom to go blaming everyone else for the current situation but the people actually in it.

Michigan has recruited well (at least according to those star sites everyone reads) so the talent isn’t necessarily dropping off. Brady Hoke has made some mistakes, but who hasn’t? It’s an amalgam of things that have led Michigan to where it is, and some of the same things sabotage those neighbors in South Bend. Both programs basically had a dip in hiring and production in a small period of time and everyone else capitalized on it. Michigan (and Notre Dame) will be fine long-term, even against bloated expectations, but it won’t come as organically as simply showing up on the field with a bunch of recommended talent.

The real question now for Michigan is how much time the coaching staff has to turn it around. Hoke is Brandon’s legacy hire, the one he’ll be attached to for however long his tenure is. If this season doesn’t go semi-okay, you’re looking at a touchy situation going into next fall.

Terry Johnson:

Without question, Michigan’s administration is to blame for the program’s struggles.

It doesn’t take a Toledo rocket scientist to figure out where the administration dropped the ball. Instead of hiring a true “Michigan Man” to run the program, the university opted to go with Rich Rodriguez, whose spread offense was revolutionizing the game. While it looked like a good idea on paper, it became abundantly clear that the Wolverines didn’t have the personnel to run Rich Rod’s scheme. After three years of trying to cram square pegs through a round hole, the school let him go, and hired former coordinator Brady Hoke to run the show.

However, the damage had already been done at that point. After three years of recruiting players that could play Rodriguez’s spread offense and 3-3-5 defense, Michigan had to reload its roster with talent suited to Hoke’s scheme.

Matt Zemek:

With the benefit of hindsight and input from other sources such as The Student Section’s own Allen Kenney, it’s important to say that Rich Rodriguez — while certainly unwise to uproot Michigan’s culture to the extent he did, and foolish to hire Greg Robinson as defensive coordinator — didn’t receive much of any help from Michigan administrators and leaders. Just look at this story, which shows the yawning gap in compensation between Hoke’s coordinators and Rodriguez’s coordinators.

Rodriguez wasn’t given a fair shot. Hoke has not delivered results with a much greater budget. There’s a lot of blame to go around in Ann Arbor. Rodriguez was not the right fit at Michigan, but plenty of other people in and around the program set him up to fail.

Brady Hoke has worn this look of concern for the past few seasons. He needs to find answers in Ann Arbor... but it's not as though he's the only person to blame for Michigan's problems.

Brady Hoke has worn this look of concern for the past few seasons. He needs to find answers in Ann Arbor… but it’s not as though he’s the only person to blame for Michigan’s problems.

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Question No. 3: How much can James Franklin’s tenure at Vanderbilt serve as a basis for predicting how well he’ll do at Penn State?

Terry Johnson:

James Franklin’s extremely successful tenure at Vanderbilt speaks volumes about what he’ll be able to do at Penn State.

Make no mistake about it: Vanderbilt was the laughingstock on the SEC before Franklin showed up. In its 107-year history, the school had posted just two nine-win seasons (1904 and 1915), and had qualified for only four bowl games.

In other words, the Commodores were the team that everyone wanted to schedule for homecoming.

However, Franklin’s arrival changed that line of thinking. Inheriting a squad that was coming off of back-to-back 2-10 seasons, Franklin guided Vandy to a rare a bowl game in his first year. As players began to buy into his system, the Commodores became a surprise contender in the SEC East, finishing 9-4 in both 2012 and 2013.

To recap: he took a perennial bottom feeder in one of the toughest conferences in America, doubled the number of nine-win seasons in school history, and took the school to the same number of bowl berths it had been to since 1956.

If he can do that at a lower-tier SEC program, he’ll do even better during his time in Happy Valley. Sure, Penn State is still dealing with “coma sentence” that the NCAA levied after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, but with the sanctions scheduled to gradually dissipate, there’s no reason to think that Franklin won’t have the Nittany Lions back to the level that they were at between 2005-09, where they won 40 games in 4 seasons, including two BCS bowls.

Matt Zemek:

I’m skeptical about James Franklin… which means Penn State will probably win 11 games next season and be a juggernaut for the remainder of this decade.

Seriously, though, the SEC East has witnessed the decline of Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky over the past few years. Those programs regularly made bowl games not too long ago. Yes, Missouri has gotten better, but winning four games in the East is not as hard as it once was. Outside the SEC, Vanderbilt has been able to win an FCS game, a few not-that-challenging September non-cons, and a season-closing game against Wake Forest in recent years. Vanderbilt didn’t take down elite teams in the SEC.

It’s not as though the Commodores’ high win totals were built on the strength of top-tier victories over heavyweights. Vanderbilt improved as a program because it picked off all the weak teams and some of the moderately difficult ones. Yes, that’s exactly what VU had not been able to do in the past, but the extent of the program’s transformation under Franklin has, from this vantage point, been slightly overstated (not hugely, but slightly).

Given that PSU has been placed in the far tougher East Division of the Big Ten, it will be difficult for the Nittany Lions to climb past Michigan State, Ohio State, and Michigan on a consistent basis. Franklin has a lot more work in front of him. He’ll have to show more chops as a coach to supplement the recruiting he’s done.

Bart Doan:

There’s no good way to answer this because there is no definitive blueprint about success somewhere else being success in a new foray. Just because you can pick up girls in a one-horse town doesn’t mean you can do it your first day on campus at Sigma Chi.

Rich Rodriguez came to Michigan with much more success in his career satchel and a more ready made situation and basically spent his entire tenure tinkling into a head wind. And now he’s successful at Arizona. Tyrone Willingham had been successful at Stanford … but couldn’t get it done with more resources at Notre Dame.

So there’s nothing that guarantees success. All of that said, you ask me who has been the best hire not named Urban Meyer at a major program in the last 5 years and I think James Franklin is on that list.

Unlike Matt, I’m highly unskeptical of Franklin, and believe in what he sells. This might sound juvenile (offset by the age-d maturity of Matt and Terry) but that whole ordeal a few years ago about hiring coaches with attractive wives because you know they can recruit … I was sold then.

If an ugly dude can get a pretty gal on his arm, he understands how to use your resources to outkick his coverage in impossible situations. Franklin knows what’s going on. And Penn State will win a title under him before he leaves, one would assume, if he stays long enough.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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