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New era: UW, MSU rise above 'powerhouses'

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Drew Sharp
November 30, 2011

When the so-called conference traditionalists formed the two divisions of the new 12-team Big Ten, they based parity solely from the perspective of the four “big brands” : Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and newcomer Nebraska. It was blatant gerrymandering, rigging the process that could best protect the preferred championship game matchups like Ohio State vs. Michigan or Nebraska vs. Penn State.


But it’s two of the afterthoughts that’ll christen the Big Ten football championship game.


Wisconsin and Michigan State got the “whatever” treatment during the realignment, but they’re now representative of a new generation unwilling to bow before the stoic old guard.


They’ve been the two best Big Ten programs the last two years with identical 21-3 overall regular-season records. Neither has recruiting classes inundated with four- or five-star players who keep message boards humming with faux barometers of excellence. But both serve as proper examples for correctly building a sustainable program without the benefit of a long, storied tradition.


“We both had to do it the tough way,” said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio on Sunday during a teleconference previewing Saturday’s championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.


That makes it a little more satisfying for both.


“The standard names aren’t here,” Dantonio added. “It’s a new era.”


It’s also an alert to the Big Four: Wisconsin and Michigan State aren’t going away anytime soon, guys. Those hoping for a competitive fluctuation might be in for a disappointment considering how both programs keep stockpiling solid, if not spectacular talent, and are patient with development.


It’s not outrageous to suggest that you’re potentially more inclined to see the Spartans and Badgers back in the title game together in the immediate future than any of those two other matchups previously mentioned.


“They won national championships,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said Sunday about the Big Four. “You can’t erase history. But history is in the history books, and we’re more interested in what’s in the newspapers right now.”


Dantonio said Wisconsin was one of the models he followed five years ago when he assumed the reins of a, yet again, disheveled Michigan State football program following the John L. Smith disaster. Of course, the Badgers had a 15-year head start on the Spartans. Barry Alvarez came aboard and gradually established the culture and personality that Bielema followed when he replaced Alvarez as his handpicked successor.


It’s no coincidence that the Badgers and Spartans have become two of the conference’s more stable programs considering that Bielema and Dantonio now have two of the longer Big Ten coaching tenures with Joe Paterno’s recent ouster. Brady Hoke just finished his first season at Michigan, and both Ohio State and Penn State will have new coaches next season.


The afterthoughts might actually have an edge as Big Ten football presses forward.


“It’s true that we’re both kind of mirror images of each other,” said Bielema, “in that neither of us is confused as to what we think we should be. We know what our identity is as a program. That helps since this has become an extremely competitive conference.”


Illinois fired Ron Zook on Sunday after seven seasons that included one Rose Bowl trip. The administration must certainly look at the teams participating in the Big Ten’s first championship game and realize that revivals are not only possible in this conference but are sustainable as well.


But only if you make sure you get the right coaches with the right philosophy for your program’s particular situation.



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