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A Few Steps Forward, One Step Back: Analyzing Mark Dantonio's First 10 Years at Michigan State

Mark Dantonio

Mark Dantonio

For all of the success that Michigan State has enjoyed during Mark Dantonio’s 10 years as head coach in East Lansing, the Spartans have endured maddening inconsistencies. Dantonio is 90-42 with a 53-28 record since coming over from Cincinnati in November 2006. He has led Michigan State to three Big Ten titles (2010, ’13, ’15) and three division titles, but there also have been two losing seasons and a 4-5 record in bowl games. Here is a synopsis of Dantonio era.

Michigan State Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio

2007

7-6 (3-5 Big Ten)
Lost 24-21 to Boston College in Champs Sports Bowl

Dantonio halted the steady and embarrassing decline of the program under John L. Smith. In his first season, the Spartans started with a four-game winning streak as they did in 2005. However, they did not completely collapse once they started playing Big Ten foes. They managed to finish 7-6, posting their first winning season and earning their first bowl game appearance since 2003.

2008

9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)
Lost 24-12 to Georgia in Capital One Bowl
Finished season ranked No. 24 in AP and Coaches polls

The improvement continued in Dantonio’s second season. The Spartans won six conference games and nine games overall. They also played on New Year’s Day for the first time since 1999. Not coincidentally, that season was the final one in East Lansing for Dantonio’s mentor, Nick Saban. Additionally, Dantonio lead MSU to its first victory in seven years over their archrivals from Ann Arbor.

2009

6-7 (4-4 Big Ten)
Lost 41-31 to Texas Tech in Valero Alamo Bowl

The Spartans stumbled through the type of season that one would have expected in a new head coach’s debut. They lost three of their first four games, including a home contest against Central Michigan. They managed to win two of their three final contests to finish 6-6 and secure a bowl bid. Of their six victories, one was against an FCS member; only one occurred against an FBS opponent that finished with a winning record. Despite facing a team whose head coach had been fired shortly before the bowl game (Texas Tech’s Mike Leach), Michigan State lost and finished 6-7.

2010

11-2 (7-1 Big Ten)
Won share of Big Ten title
Lost 49-7 to Alabama in Capital One Bowl
Finished season ranked No. 14 in AP and Coaches polls

Michigan State reeled off eight consecutive victories to start the season. The 11 regular season wins set the record at the time for the most in program history. The Spartans won a share of the Big Ten title for the first time since 1990. Additionally, they defeated Wisconsin, one of the other two teams with whom they split the conference champion. They did not face the other member of the championship trio, Ohio State, during the final season before the Big Ten moved to a divisional format and added a conference title game.

In hindsight, the appearance of success was a bit deceiving. The Spartans only played four opponents that finished with eight or more victories. And two of those, Iowa and Alabama, steamrolled the Spartans by a combined score of 86-13. Nevertheless, it still represented an impressive rebound from 2009’s 6-7 showing and began an ascent not experienced in East Lansing for decades.

2011

11-3 (7-1 Big Ten)
Won Leaders Division
Lost 42-39 to Wisconsin in Big Ten Championship Game
Beat Georgia 33-30 (3OT) in Outback Bowl

Finished season ranked No. 10 in Coaches, No. 11 in AP polls

Dantonio and his team looked unimpressive during most games. Lackluster performances in the first three road games contributed to that perception. Those included double-digit losses at Notre Dame and at Nebraska. The other was a three-point win at Ohio State, which finished 6-7 that season.

However, Michigan State did pile up seven conference wins en route to winning the inaugural Legends Division title. Among these victories was the fourth straight over Michigan. Additionally, they defeated Wisconsin, the Leaders Division champion. A heartbreaking loss in the rematch with the Badgers in the first Big Ten Championship Game did not ruin the season. A stirring second-half comeback to defeat Georgia in triple overtime in the Outback Bowl ended the campaign on a hopeful note and gave the Spartans back-to-back 11-win seasons.

2012

7-6, (3-5 Big Ten)
Beat TCU 17-16 in Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl

After winning a share of the Big Ten championship then coming tantalizing close to winning one outright during the two previous seasons, the 2012 campaign opened with much optimism. Instead, the Spartans flopped. They lost five conference games by a total of 13 points. The four-game winning streak versus Michigan ended. They limped to a 6-6 record before narrowly pulling out a 17-16 victory over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

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2013

13-1, (8-0 Big Ten)

Won Legends Division
Beat Ohio State 34-24 in Big Ten Championship Game
Beat Stanford 24-20 in Rose Bowl

Finished season ranked No. 3 in AP and Coaches polls

Michigan State rebounded spectacularly after a four-point setback at Notre Dame early in the season. The Spartans finished undefeated in Big Ten play for the first time since 1987. That also was the last time they won an outright Big Ten title. Unfortunately, this was the final season of the BCS so, despite 12 wins and conference title, they had no shot to play for the national title. The first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1988 and a hard-fought victory over Pac-12 champion Stanford in Pasadena did serve as a great consolation prize.

2014

11-2 (7-1 Big Ten)
Beat Baylor 42-41 in Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic

Finished season ranked No. 5 in AP (tied) and Coaches polls

A loss in early September knocked Michigan State out of serious contention for the inaugural College Football Playoff. Another loss at home versus Ohio State killed any chances at being one of the four teams with a shot at the national title. The 49-37 defeat also ended any chance of repeating as Big Ten champions.

Despite those setbacks, Michigan State had double-digit wins in consecutive season and for the fourth time in five years overall. The Spartans played in consecutive New Year’s Day bowl games for the first time. Additionally, a thrilling comeback victory over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl was Michigan State’s fourth straight, by far the most in program history.

2015

12-2 (7-1 Big Ten)
Won Big Ten East Division
Beat Iowa 16-13 in Big Ten Championship Game
Lost to Alabama 38-0 in College Football Playoff semifinal

Finished season ranked No. 6 in AP and Coaches polls

Only a controversial one-point loss at Nebraska prevented the Spartans from enjoying their first undefeated regular season since 1966. Dantonio led Michigan State to its third Big Ten championship in a six-year span. Although Alabama’s shutout of the Spartans in the College Football Playoff ended the season in a sour fashion, it could not completely overshadow their accomplishments. This season showed the rest of college football that MSU was not content with merely winning an occasional Big Ten title and playing on New Year’s Day. The Spartans had reestablished themselves as consistent national title contenders, just like they were in 1950s and ‘60s.

2016

3-9 (1-8 Big Ten)

After a string of unprecedented success, Michigan State appeared to have gone back in time before Dantonio arrived a decade earlier. The Spartans relapsed into the nightmarish performances witnessed under the short and painful tenures of Bobby Williams and Muddy Waters. They endured the most losses since 1982. Their 1-8 Big Ten mark represented the lowest winning percentage (.111) was their lowest since going 0-5-1 in 1958.

Historically speaking, Dantonio has accomplished much during his tenure as Michigan State’s head coach. In 10 seasons, he has already won three Big Ten titles, which is more than the two Duffy Daugherty won in his 19 seasons. Dantonio’s 90 wins enterting 2017 are the fourth most in program history, while his winning percentage (.682) is fifth best. His 53-28 (.654) mark in Big Ten games trails only Clarence Munn (.846), who was the head coach in the Spartans’ inaugural season in the conference, way back in 1953.

Dantonio is on pace to become the most successful coach in program history. He only trails Daugherty by 19 wins for both the top spot overall and the most victories in Big Ten play. The only thing Dantonio has yet to accomplish is to lead Michigan State to a national title, something Munn (1951-52) and Daugherty (1955, ’57, ’65-66) both did during their respective tenures.

Dantonio’s job was not in jeopardy after last season’s 3-9 showing. However, the fact that the utter collapse happened in his 10th year is somewhat concerning. Especially since it preceded a three-year run that saw the Spartans go a combined 36-5, lost just two Big Ten games on their way to winning a pair of conference titles and going 2-1 in New Year’s Day bowl games. Why should the Spartans drop from perennial contender for the Big Ten championship and a nationally ranked team all the way down to posting the program’s worst finish in 34 years? The logical response would be to label the 2016 season as Dantonio’s mulligan.

But going forward, Michigan State fans want to have some questions answered. Was last season in fact the one-year nadir of the Dantonio era? Will his 2017 crew rebound from a dreadful season as his teams did in ‘10 and ‘13 by winning the Big Ten championship? Can Dantonio put an end to the cycle of a couple of years of Big Ten contention and appearances in prominent bowl games only to revert back to no better than a .500 team (or worse)? These questions will begin to be answered on Sept. 2 when the Spartans open the season at home against Bowling Green.

— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.