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Bacon: Michigan, MSU football paths diverge midseason

John U. Bacon

Michigan and Michigan State both entered this season ranked in the top twenty. Both have struggled on offense, and lost some games along the way.

But by the end of October, their paths seemed to have diverged. Michigan State has lost three straight, while Michigan finally found its way with a big win over Notre Dame.

The Spartans started the season ranked 20th , and were expected to compete for the Big Ten East Division title. But it was quickly apparent the 2019 offense wasn’t any better than the previous year’s anemic model – and might actually be worse. Instead of hiring a credible offensive coordinator, head coach Mark Dantonio keeps playing musical chairs with the coaches he already has, moving this guy to that position, and that guy to this one – which hasn’t made anything better.

To be fair, the Spartans just finished one of the toughest months in college football. They faced three straight top ten teams -- Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State -- two of which have already beaten Michigan. But the Spartans’ offense looked particularly bad while doing it, scoring a total of 17 points for the entire month.

For a variety of reasons, many wonder if Dantonio plans to retire after this season. The circumstantial evidence includes Dantonio’s refusal to hire a real offensive coordinator, his request to delay a legal deposition for a lawsuit until after the season, and the fact that he set the school’s all-time record for victories in September. He’s had heart surgery, and after beating Michigan a record 8 of 10 times, he has little else to prove.

If I had to bet, I suspect Dantonio will, in fact, step down after this season.

While Dantonio might be winding down, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is working to gear things up. After Harbaugh hired an assistant from Alabama to run Michigan’s offense this season, the Wolverines grinded their gears en route to a 5-2 record at midseason. Their best game was a loss against Penn State.

After getting behind 21-0 in the first half, instead of giving up they got it together, playing their best football of the season before falling short, 28-21.

The Wolverines used that solid second half as a launching pad for their next game, against 8th-ranked Notre Dame last weekend. Going into the contest, every sports media outlet pointed out that in Harbaugh’s fifth year as Michigan’s head coach, he had beaten only one of the eleven top ten teams he’d faced.

None of that mattered Saturday. The Wolverines jumped out to a 17-0 lead, and kept it up to finish off Notre Dame 45-14 – by far Michigan’s best game this year, and maybe Harbaugh’s best at Michigan. He was rewarded with the national Coach of the Week award – and the silence of his many critics.

If the Wolverines had lost, they would have had a 5-3 record, and little hope to salvage much the rest of the way. Instead, at 6-2, they’re now heavily favored to win their next three games to set up another big game against Ohio State.

But one of those games will be against Michigan State – a contest that will have a lot to say about the direction of both teams, and perhaps both coaches.

John U. Bacon is the author of several national bestsellers. His latest book "Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football" is out now. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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