Big Ten

Big Ten Championship Game puts program successes of Dantonio, Ferentz on display


Big Ten Championship Game puts program successes of Dantonio, Ferentz on display

INDIANAPOLIS — Mark Dantonio and Kirk Ferentz go way back.

Exactly how far back was chronicled in somewhat amusing fashion during the Friday press conferences ahead of Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.

According to the coaches, they first met while recruiting in Florida in 1989. Dantonio was lost, so he followed Ferentz around in his rental car. Ferentz enjoyed some grouper sandwiches.

Let’s let them tell the story.

“When I was at Youngstown State way back in the 80s, they sent me to Florida to recruit,” Dantonio said. “I got in my rental car. I didn't know where I was going. No cell phones or GPS back then. I drove around behind the guy from Iowa, which was Kirk. I think we did that for almost two days. I got to know him at that point in time.”

“I got introduced to grouper sandwiches. That would have been the spring of 1989,” Ferentz said. “First time I recruited down in Tampa, Mark was actually at Youngstown State, a program at that time and I continue to have great respect for. He was there with Clarence Brooks, assistant at Syracuse. The budget was tight. I think Mark was living in the room with Clarence and riding in the car to save money. … First time we really got to know each other. He was coaching I believe with coach (Jim) Tressel at that time at Youngstown.

“Funny how the world turns around sometimes. However many years later this is, here we are in Indianapolis. No grouper sandwiches this weekend, though.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten Championship Game preview: 10 things to know about Hawkeyes-Spartans]

Funny, indeed. Dantonio and Ferentz will collide as opposing head coaches on Saturday night, more than 25 years after first meeting as assistants. Back then, there was no Big Ten Championship Game and there was no College Football Playoff, but those are the spoils the Spartans and Hawkeyes will be playing for in Indy. The winner gets a league championship and a trip to the sport’s final four. The loser, quite simply, won’t.

But stepping back from the immediate and looking at the big pictures of both programs, Saturday’s night championship tilt will be a terrific piece of evidence of what these coaches have done to take their respective programs to their present levels of success.

Dantonio has done a terrific job turning the Spartans into one of college football’s powers, and for the few who still haven’t realized it, a win Saturday night would finally cement it in the minds of all of the sport’s observers. He’s won at least 11 games in five of the last six seasons, a Big Ten record. He’s taken the Spartans to bowl games in each of the last eight seasons, winning the last four. He’s got a Big Ten championship, a Rose Bowl championship and a Cotton Bowl win under his belt in the past two seasons alone and could be competing for a national championship if Michigan State wins Saturday.

In other words, pretty good.

“He's done a wonderful job building that program, giving it consistency. They do all the little things right. That's why they're so good and have been for so long,” Ferentz said. “For us to have a chance to face them, it's going to be a big challenge for us, but we're really excited about that.”

“It speaks to our program's stability,” Dantonio said of reaching the Big Ten title game for the third time in five seasons. “It's more a program statement I think in terms of our lasting success rather than one here and done, not being back. That's what I was speaking to. The people that came here as true freshmen saw people play like Keshawn Martin, Kirk Cousins, Le'Veon Bell, people like that. Now they're in that position to make a name for themselves. You say Shilique Calhoun, Jack Allen, Connor Cook at this point in time. I think it's a program statement in general. But we've been here before, but this is still goal No. 1 for us.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Tough quarterbacks lead Hawkeyes, Spartans into Big Ten Championship Game]

There might be a danger in so much success, a change in attitude, perhaps, to one that expects wins that doesn’t feel they need to be earned.

Though his players' constant talk of a chip on their shoulder should dispel any of those fears, Dantonio was asked if a trip to the Playoff would mean Michigan State losing its blue-collar mentality and transforming into another college football blue blood.

"I hope not. I hope we stay grounded in who we are as a program and continue to just stride and do a little bit better than we've always done and always try and move a little bit farther,” Dantonio said. “When you've gotten to a point, you want to move farther than that, I think that's a human spirit working. I think that's the competitiveness in you. Regardless of what you do for a living, or sport, I think you want to try and go just a little bit farther or repeat or do something like that, because I think that's human nature. I hope we keep the same attitude that we must overachieve. There's no question in my mind that we must all overachieve for us to be successful, regardless of our level of abilities.”

Dantonio’s program has become a national model, but it had to base itself off a model to reach this point. Dantonio talked about the influence of Tom Izzo’s basketball program and how its high level of success and hard-work habits influenced the Spartan football team.

But Dantonio mentioned another influence, too: Ferentz and Iowa.

“When I became a head football coach, I looked around at different programs — I said this throughout the week — I looked around at different programs and said, 'Who do we want to pattern our program after?' Iowa was probably the dominant one,” Dantonio said. “Had a staff that had great continuity, that would stay in place, excellent coaches, a program built on toughness, not a system. They didn't change, switch back on different things. They had a belief system from a football standpoint that was very structured, defensively, offensively, special teams. They were very, very successful. The man has won a lot of football games, has had success in this conference really throughout 17 years. So, I mean, that's a statement in itself to me.”

[MORE BIG TEN: With Big Ten title game win, Spartans could reach peak of the mountain]

The trip Ferentz’s program — and the man personally — has taken in just a year’s time is quite remarkable.

Ferentz was under fire from fans and observers alike last season and into the offseason. A 7-6 finish was capped by an embarrassing blowout loss to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl. The past three seasons had just seen a .500 record of 19-19. And Ferentz’s presence, while hardly bad, was wearing on Iowa fans after 16 years, with a poll showing that just 40 percent of Iowa fans approved of the job he was doing.

But Ferentz didn’t go anywhere or fire anyone. Instead, he held a January press conference where he made a high-profile quarterback change and vowed to do things differently. “New Kirk” was born.

And all Iowa has done since is win all 12 games its played.

"It’s been 17 years at Iowa. If you coach long enough, I imagine you get (to the hot seat). If you hang around long enough, you're going to be on it,” Ferentz said. “That's the great thing about sports and college athletics, you just don't know. People don't know the story before it's written, as much as everybody would love to. That talk and rhetoric keeps the sport active and everybody interested.”

[MORE BIG TEN: What a turnaround it's been for 'New Kirk' and the Hawkeyes]

And the truth is that the vast majority of the Ferentz Era has been mighty successful.

In 17 seasons, Ferentz has led the Hawkeyes to 127 wins, 13 bowl games (this season’s will be No. 13) and two conference titles. A win Saturday night would not just mean conference championship No. 3 but a chance to play for a national championship.

Big picture, Ferentz has this program in a pretty good place.

"I think we live in a society right now where it's an immediate-gratification type thing where people want it done right now. They don't want to wait. When things start to slide, they want to make change,” Dantonio said. “I think the University of Iowa and its administration showed great character in the way that they've handled that. I'm not sure they ever missed a bowl game, but the standards were set so high. Obviously he's back, going strong.”

These might have not been the two teams that were projected to be playing in this game at the beginning of the season. Ohio State was coming off a national championship. Wisconsin was believed to be in control of the West. But these two programs certainly deserve to be in this position, these two coaches deserve it after where they’ve led their respective programs.

Twenty six years ago they were eating grouper sandwiches in Florida. Now they lead the Nos. 4 and 5 teams in the College Football Playoff rankings in a de facto national quarterfinal.

Funny how the world turns around sometimes.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.