Last season, Michigan State and Iowa played in the Big Ten Championship Game.
This season, there might not be a postseason game for either.
It’s been a disastrous 2016 for each of 2015’s division champs, with the Hawkeyes’ 12-0 regular season and the Spartans’ trip to the College Football Playoff seeming like ancient history.
Ups and downs are always a part of the big picture of college football. Only an elite few can maintain championship-level success from year to year. But the complete 180s these two programs have pulled in such a short amount of time continues to have fans and observers scratching their heads in complete and utter confusion.
The more glaring lack of success has come in East Lansing, where after a promising 2-0 start that featured what seemed like a big road win at Notre Dame, Michigan State has lost each of its last seven games, a stunning free fall for a team pegged to once more compete for division, conference and national championships. Mark Dantonio seemed to have his program in a position to reload rather than rebuild, but a large number of losses from last year’s Big Ten championship team has been obviously impossible to overcome.
Dantonio hasn’t been able to find a capable replacement for Connor Cook at quarterback, juggling between Tyler O’Connor and Brian Lewerke before the latter’s season-ending injury. The offensive line, which lost three starters from last year’s team, has been unable to protect the quarterbacks or establish any success running the ball. Meanwhile, the defense has had plenty of its own problems, most notably injuries in the linebacking corps, but the three departed starters along the defensive line have been sorely missed, too.
All in all, Michigan State has averaged 23.6 points a game while allowing an average of 29.9 points a game, in the bottom four in the Big Ten in both categories. It’s one thing to suffer losses to the likes of Wisconsin and Michigan, two teams which have been among the nation’s best this season. But the Spartans’ seven-game losing streak also contains defeats at the hands of Indiana, Northwestern, Maryland and most recently Illinois, unacceptable losses for a program that entered the year as one of the most consistently successful in America.
The best indication of how abnormal this campaign has been is the fact that Michigan State already has seven losses and won’t technically reach bowl eligibility. A 5-7 record would be the best possible finish, though that seems unlikely to happen, with games remaining against Ohio State and Penn State, two top-12 teams in the latest College Football Playoff rankings. So even if a 5-7 record gets teams into bowl games, as it did last year, the Spartans are probably not reaching that mark, meaning this will be the first season under Dantonio to end without a bowl appearance.
If Michigan State finishes an expected 3-9 (the other remaining regular-season game comes against basement-dwelling Rutgers), it will be the program's worst season since the 3-8 finish of 1991. If the Spartans manage to lose all three remaining games and finish 2-10, it will be the worst season since the 2-9 campaign in 1982.
Michigan State posted double-digit wins in five of the last seven seasons under Dantonio. It has never posted a double-digit loss season in program history.
“We are very disappointed,” Dantonio said after Saturday’s loss to Illinois, “lot of disappointed people, but it’s like I told the football team, when we are on that long road, everybody’s walking down that long road. We might not all be on the road at the same time, but it appears there’s a long line of us on that road.
“We have to keep pushing, and we have to come out the other end, that’s the only way I know how to do it. If you take the foot off the accelerator, stop grinding, bad things happen. Thus far, we have not done that. We have to reanalyze, reevaluate, and I’m obviously very disappointed for the fans as well.”
And while all that sounds very, very bad — and it is — there’s equally troubling play going on in Iowa City, where the Hawkeyes are staring at a 5-4 record with three games remaining, a far cry from the undefeated regular season that led into last year’s conference title game.
The thing is, Iowa wasn’t facing the same kind of preseason challenges as Michigan State was. The Hawkeyes returned their two best players from last season, quarterback C.J. Beathard and defensive back Desmond King. King has again played exceptional in the follow up to his Thorpe Award season, but Beathard and the Iowa offense have been completely ineffective.
An injury to top receiver Matt VandeBerg has been noticeably detrimental to Beathard’s play, but the Hawkeyes’ rushing attack has come nowhere close to replicating last season’s success. The two-headed monster of Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels was supposed to be one of the most fearsome running back combos in the conference. Instead, Iowa is averaging 152.6 yards on the ground per game, third worst in the Big Ten.
Meanwhile, the defense has been real Jekyll-and-Hyde. It stood tall against Minnesota and Wisconsin, two teams leading the Big Ten West Division standings, holding those opponents to a combined 24 points. But it’s been gashed by the likes of Northwestern, Purdue and most recently Penn State. On Saturday night, the Nittany Lions racked up 41 points on 599 total yards.
“There's not really much you can say after a game like this,” Kirk Ferentz said after Saturday’s loss to Penn State. “I think everybody would be stating the obvious. There’s nobody in our locker room who's not hurting right now and sees this as acceptable. This is not what we're looking for, it's never been the standard, it will never be the standard.
“So, you know, we're going to have to find a way to move forward, and it's all about our response tomorrow or until the end of the season. It's what it's all about, that's how you measure anything.”
So will Iowa too miss a bowl game? The Hawkeyes would have to lose out to do so, though they could come close: Games against Michigan and Nebraska — two top-10 teams — remain. Thankfully for Iowa, there’s a game left against Illinois, a team that has only defeated winless teams in conference play. Going 1-2 over the season’s final three weeks would give the Hawkeyes a 6-6 record and send them to the postseason. Barely.
But the bigger headline would be the turnaround from 12-0 during the regular season last year to 6-6 or even 5-7 this year. That’s an awful drop, and unfortunately it’s one that perhaps could’ve been predicted given Ferentz’s track record. This is Ferentz’s 18th season at Iowa, and his highest peaks have almost always been followed by depressing mediocrity. After winning a combined 31 games during the 2002, 2003 and 2004 seasons, the Hawkeyes won just 19 over the next three seasons. Ferentz led Iowa to 11 wins in 2009, only to turn in campaigns of eight, seven, four, eight and seven wins in the following five seasons.
And now after the winningest season in Iowa history, it looks like the Hawkeyes are heading for .500.
Obviously, it was going to be hard for Michigan State and Iowa to repeat their 2015 efforts with the terrific competition on both sides of the Big Ten. Michigan and Ohio State entered as East favorites. West leaders Wisconsin and Nebraska have proved to be two of the best teams in the country. But this?
The Spartans and Hawkeyes combined to win 24 games last season, played for a Big Ten title and made trips to the Cotton Bowl and Rose Bowl. This season, they’ll be lucky to combine for one trip to the Motor City Bowl.
How the mighty have fallen, indeed.