The fall of Michigan State could end up being the most dramatic in Big Ten football since the Gerald Ford-led Michigan Wolverines went from first to worst 82 years ago.
The Spartans won the conference championship last season for the second time in three years and appeared in the College Football Playoff. Final record: 12-2, including 7-1 in Big Ten games.
This year they’re 2-7 and 0-6 in the conference. With East Division contenders Ohio State and Penn State the finishing opponents, Michigan State’s best and perhaps last chance at a Big Ten victory comes Saturday when Rutgers, also winless in the Big Ten, visits Spartan Stadium.
“It’s amazing when you really take it into context where we’re at right now compared to where we were at last year,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “But that’s reality. Reality sets in on you.”
The most stunning drop-off by a defending champion occurred in 1934 with coach Harry Kipke’s Michigan team.
The Wolverines won the 1932 and ‘33 national titles under the Dickinson System, a widely respected formula for crowning champions in that era. Those teams combined to go 15-0-1, outscore opponents 254-30 and record 11 shutouts.
A spate of injuries hit in 1934, and the two-time defending conference champion went 1-7 overall and 0-6 in the Big Ten. The Wolverines were outscored 143-21 and shut out five times.
“In ‘32 and ‘33, we were undefeated, and then in ‘34 we had a tough, tough year,” Ford, the team most valuable player who became the 38th U.S. president, told the Michigan Daily in 1994. “In those years, our offense was called ‘a punt, a pass, and a prayer.’ We had an outstanding passer, Bill Renner, who broke an ankle before the season started. Our punter, John Regeczi, was the greatest college punter I ever saw and he ruined his knee. All we had left was the prayer.”
The 2016 Spartans, like the ‘34 Wolverines, have been hard-hit by injuries. They’ve played three quarterbacks and have had different starting lineups on offense and defense every game. Their famously strong defense is giving up 30 points a game and ranks last in the Big Ten in red-zone defense and sacks.
“We had very high goals coming into this season. I do not think our goals should have been less than they are. I just don’t,” Dantonio said. “You can’t go to a College Football Playoff, win the Big Ten the last two out of three years, sit there and say, ‘Gee, guys, I hope we go 7-5.’ You can’t do that.”
Right now, 7-5 would look pretty good.
A look at some other notable falls for returning Big Ten champions:
• 1943 Ohio State: The Buckeyes went 9-1 and won their first national title in 1942 under coach Paul Brown. World War II hit the roster hard the next season and the so-called “Baby Bucks” were able to return only five players and one starter from the championship team. They were overmatched against most opponents and finished 3-5 and seventh in the Big Ten at 1-4.
• 1954 Michigan State: The Spartans lost star running back Leroy Bolden to injury early in the season and were on the wrong end of a bunch of close games while finishing 3-6 and tying for eighth at 1-5. The year before, in their first football season in the Big Ten, they won nine of 10 games.
• 1967 Michigan State: Coming off an undefeated season that included the famous 10-10 tie with Notre Dame, Michigan State went 3-7 overall and dropped to seventh place at 3-4. A 37-7 loss to Houston in late September, the most lopsided in 20 years, marked the start of a downturn in Duffy Daugherty’s program.
• 1999 Ohio State: John Cooper’s Buckeyes slipped to 6-6 and tied for eighth at 3-5, losing their last three games and failing to go to a bowl for the first time since 1988. The 1998 team was ranked No. 1 much of the season, shared the conference title with Wisconsin and Ohio State and would have been in position to play in the BCS title game had it not been for a late loss to Michigan State.
• 2002 Illinois: The Illini went 5-7 overall and tied for fifth at 4-4 as Ron Turner couldn’t settle on a quarterback, the defense struggled and chemistry issues surfaced. The year before they had gone 10-2 and 7-1 and played in the Sugar Bowl. (The Rose Bowl was the national championship game for the 2001 season.)