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July 3, 2009

Mailbag: Return to glory ahead for Spartans?

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Status as a nationally elite college football program comes and goes.

Sometimes it disappears forever like at Army and SMU. Sometimes it lapses for several years but eventually returns, as was the case at USC, LSU and Texas.

Michigan State is waiting for its return to prominence. The Spartans shared national championships in 1965 and '66 when players like Bubba Smith, George Webster and Gene Washington donned the green and white.

The years have been lean ever since. Michigan State has only celebrated three Big Ten championships in the past 43 years and hasn't won an outright title since 1987.

But that may be changing. As we see in this week's mailbag, there are indications that the Spartans' return to prominence could be drawing near.

True contender?

From: Jon in Holt, Mich.: In coach Mark Dantonio's first two seasons Michigan State has gone to back-to-back bowl games, including a New Year's Day bowl last season. He has brought in a lot of great talent, headlined by a top-20 recruiting class in '09. Dantonio is back at it after he picked up a commitment from Michigan's top player, William Gholston. Do you think that Michigan State has a serious chance to win a Big Ten championship in the next couple of years?

No doubt about it. The Spartans have made great strides in two years under Dantonio, and there's no reason to think that won't continue.

Michigan State often has good talent, but in the past the Spartans were undisciplined and mentally fragile. They'd frequently beat themselves in big games with bonehead plays and then collapse in the second half of the season.

Dantonio has demanded discipline and mental toughness - and it shows. Michigan State managed one winning season in four years before Dantonio's arrival. In his first year the Spartans improved by three victories. They improved by two more last year when they went 9-4.

The next step is becoming more competitive with the top teams in the Big Ten. Last year Michigan State finished third in the conference standings, but the Spartans were blown out by Ohio State and Penn State.

This could be the year the Spartans make significant progress in that area with eight starters returning on defense and six regulars back on offense. They could even be a sleeper contender for the Big Ten title this year if reliable replacements for departed quarterback Brian Hoyer and running back Javon Ringer emerge.

A committee approach could be taken to fill Ringer's shoes at running back. Meanwhile, the Spartans have the potential to make an upgrade at quarterback where sophomores Keith Nichol and Kirk Cousins are vying for the starting job.

That competition will continue well into August. But remember, two years ago Nichol was involved in a close competition with Sam Bradford for the starting job at Oklahoma. Bradford went on to win the Heisman Trophy, while Nichol transferred to East Lansing.

If Nichol or Cousins are even close to as talented as Bradford, the Spartans could soon make a charge at a Big Ten championship maybe even this year.

New expectations

From: Mathis is Atlanta.: Why hasn't Notre Dame gotten rid of (coach) Charlie Weis yet? It is so obvious that he has no clue how to coach a college team and he really does not have a good relationship with the players.

Technically, Weis has taken Notre Dame to three bowls (including two BCS games) in four years, which isn't bad, especially for a program that finished 6-6 or worse in three of the four seasons before his arrival.

However, we all know that Notre Dame demands more than a 7-6 record and Hawaii Bowl victory, which is what the Irish did last season.

Still, we shouldn't forget that Notre Dame was 19-6 in Weis' first two seasons. Anyone paying close attention could see the Irish would struggle in '07 after Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, Darius Walker and several offensive linemen completed their eligibility. Yet, no one saw that 3-9 debacle coming.

Weis' job certainly was in jeopardy last year. The cost to buy out his contract reportedly anywhere between $4 million to $10 million might have had something to do with his return, but Notre Dame has hordes of backers, so raising that money wouldn't seem like an issue if the administration wanted him out.

Weis has recruited well. Three of his recruiting classes were ranked among the nation's top 10 by Rivals.com. Perhaps, Notre Dame officials recognize that, understood that '07 was going to be a "down" year and are giving him a chance to get the program back to an acceptable level.

The definition of acceptable at Notre Dame may be changing, too. The Irish haven't been realistic national championship contenders since 1993.

So, what's acceptable is subject to debate. I'd guess the Irish had better post at least eight wins possibly nine this season or Weis won't be back in 2010.

Realignment plan

From: Greg in Orlando, Fla..: Wouldn't it be smart to realign the Big 12? I don't mean expansion. Just move teams from one side to the other because of the whole Texas-Oklahoma debate last year. Doesn't this make sense since the South Division is where all the powerhouses are?

Personally, I like dividing the conference geographically. It makes it easier to remember what teams are in the division.

Besides, how would they be divided differently? East and West?

Using I-35 as the dividing line, the West could include Colorado, Kansas State, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Texas. That division would be just as one-sided, if not more so.

Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Baylor are the southern-most teams in the Big 12, so grouping them in the South Division makes sense.

By comparison, the Atlantic Coast Conference has the "Atlantic" and "Coastal" divisions with seemingly no explanation for how the teams were separated, other than to ensure that Florida State (Atlantic) and Miami (Coastal) would have the chance to meet in the conference championship game. Ironically, in the four seasons since the ACC broke into divisions Miami and Florida State have not met in the championship game.

All the other 12-team conferences are geographically divided, although technically Vanderbilt (in Nashville, Tenn.) of the SEC East is farther west than Auburn of the SEC West. However, that compromise allows Vandy and Tennessee to play each year in the East schedule and Auburn and Alabama in the West.

True, Oklahoma and Texas are the primary powers in the Big 12 and it's unfortunate that they cannot play each other in the conference championship game. However, they haven't always been the league's foremost powers. Who's to say they will retain that designation?

When the Big 12 formed in 1996 the top teams were all in the North Division Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas State. Although Texas upset Nebraska in the first Big 12 championship game, the three North Division teams all ranked ahead of the Longhorns in the final polls.

The next year Texas A&M won the South Division, while Texas and Oklahoma finished tied for fourth. Meanwhile, Nebraska was undefeated and won a share of the national championship, while Kansas State went 11-1 and ranked in the top 10.

The balance of power began shifting when Oklahoma won the national championship in 2000. But not until 2002 was the South firmly established as the Big 12's dominant division.

The reason for the history lesson is simply to illustrate that while OU and Texas dominate the Big 12 now, there is no guarantee they will continue to do so. Besides, Nebraska and Kansas State weren't requesting changing the divisions when they were the dominant teams.

Gamecocks' rocky road

From: Don in Long Beach, Miss...: Which team has the hardest schedule in the nation this season?

Actually, that's a question that cannot be accurately answered until after the season. Some teams that appear strong will disappoint. Others will surprise. Some might play well early and fade late. Some might struggle early, come together and develop into a strong team down the stretch. Injuries will take a toll on some teams. Others will get a big boost from new players.

Therefore, the best I can do is project what teams face the most challenging schedule. And although fans at Arkansas, Texas Tech, Oregon or Florida State may argue, from here South Carolina appears to face the rockiest road.

The Gamecocks' opponents were a combined 98-58 last year. Nine of them played in bowl games. Even the Football Championship Subdivision team they scheduled South Carolina State posted 10 victories last year.

As previously mentioned, a strong team in '08 won't necessarily be a strong team in '09. However, South Carolina faces Florida, Alabama and Ole Miss, which all figure to be among the preseason top 10, and Georgia, which will be probably be ranked among the top 20.

Furthermore, the Gamecocks face N.C. State, Tennessee and Arkansas, which all are expected to be significantly improved. Those are all road games, too.

South Carolina closes out the season at home against archrival Clemson, which will show up in some preseason top 25 polls. South Carolina has lost seven of the last eight games in that series.

South Carolina went 7-6 last year. If South Carolina can post seven wins in '09, it should be considered a successful season.

Best the best

From: Todd in Vancouver, Wash..: Normally, I approach the football season looking forward to what magic (Oregon State coach) Mike Riley is going to put on his Pac-10 foes. I believe that with (running back) Jacquizz Rodgers he has a chance to do just that this year. But even being an Oregon State fan I cannot wait to see (California running back) Jahvid Best take control of college football. He is that good.

No argument here that Best is one of the nation's premier players. In fact, Rivals.com rated him the most explosive player in the nation

However, expecting him to take control of college football seems a tad grandiose, especially with players like Florida's Tim Tebow, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Texas' Colt McCoy, Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant and Ole Miss' Jevan Snead heading a deep and immensely talented group of players this year.

The speedy Best definitely belongs on that list, too. He scored 10 touchdowns last season on runs that covered 20 yards or more, averaged 8.1 yards per carry and gained 1,580 yards even though he missed a game with an injury. He has the ability to snake Tebow, Bradford and McCoy in the Heisman voting.

As for Oregon State, holes have to be filled on defense and at receiver, but the quarterback situation is good and Rodgers is an excellent runner. The Beavers project to have another strong season.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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