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Forde-Yard Dash: The Reverberations of Rutgers's Shocking Opening Win Over Michigan State

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where ESPN's College GameDay really should be in Piscataway instead of State College this week:

MORE DASH: Count on Nothing | Sun Belt Respect | Malzahn Luck


When Rutgers (11) did the improbable Saturday, stunning Michigan State in East Lansing, both schools felt the impact of handling (or mishandling) a coaching situation. And, if they were paying any attention amid their ongoing dysfunction, so did Tennessee.

First, let’s address the game itself: It does not augur immediate greatness for the Scarlet Knights, who remain highly likely to lose a lot this season. But this was a startling turn of events for a program that had the longest conference losing streak in the nation heading into the season. The fact that Rutgers: A) won; B) never trailed; C) scored 28 points in the first half and 38 overall; D) led by 18 points on two different occasions; is all shocking. It is completely unlike anything Rutgers football has done in years. That is the Greg Schiano (12) Effect.

That is why athletic director Pat Hobbs regrouped and recommitted last winter after talks to bring back the best coach in school history broke down. Hobbs promised enhanced facilities and infrastructure to get the deal done, knowing that a whiff on Schiano 2.0 would increase the likelihood of Rutgers remaining the Kansas of the Big Ten. If a proven winner actually wants one of the hardest jobs in America, you make it happen.

Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano

Still, the payoff was not expected to be this immediate, the makeover this drastic. Rutgers simply looked like a different program.

Hiring Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson (13) immediately helped the offense. Four grad transfers from within the Big Ten—quarterback Noah Vedral (14) from Nebraska, receiver Aron Cruickshank from Wisconsin, defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour from Michigan, safety Brendon White from Ohio State—paid quick dividends in the opener. But mostly, this all trickled down from the head coach.

Was there a flukey element to the outcome, given Michigan State’s outrageous seven turnovers and Rutgers’s plus-four turnover margin? Maybe. The best way to produce a startling upset is to have a major advantage in that department. Rutgers was outgained by nearly 100 yards and averaged less than four yards per offensive play—indications that the euphoria of Saturday could be short-lived.

But be aware: Taking the ball away is what Schiano teams do. His final three seasons at Rutgers the first time, 2009–11, the Scarlet Knights were a plus-33 turnover margin. They had 34 takeaways in both ’09 and ’11, each time ranking in the top five nationally in that category. (Rutgers has had a negative turnover margin in each of the previous seven seasons.)

Bottom line: Rutgers is 1–0 in the Big Ten for the first time, and fans around the league must stand down from the usual banter about kicking the school out of the league. There is hope for the hopeless.

At Michigan State (15), meanwhile, the eternal hope that accompanies a coaching change was quickly replaced with dread. The debut of Mel Tucker (16) as head coach was a nightmare. The school and his predecessor can both take some responsibility for that.

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Mark Dantonio (17) did phenomenal work for many years in East Lansing—worthy of college football Hall of Fame consideration—but he let the program atrophy at the end while looking out for himself and the cronies on his staff. And the school administration, in its own turmoil after its shameful complicity in the Larry Nassar scandal, let him.

On the recruiting trail, Michigan State's recruiting classes slipped from second or third on in the Big Ten from 2014 to '16 to classes that ranked anywhere fifth to ninth from 2017 to '20. The two most recent were seventh and ninth, respectively, as the Spartans became one of the notable losers in Kentucky’s recruiting incursion into Big Ten territory.

While recruiting was sliding, Dantonio was stubbornly and arrogantly refusing to make staff changes. His last four teams ranked 12th, 10th, 13th and 12th in the conference in scoring, but the coaches remained the same. After the 2018 season, when the Spartans had their worst offense in ages, Dantonio simply changed around some job titles instead of firing anyone. “I’m a foxhole guy,” he said. “I don’t apologize for that in any respect.”

He dug his own hole, all right. The offense was again bad in 2019 and Dantonio again stalled on any kind of staff changes, because he was ready to hit the eject button on his tenure. Dantonio announced his retirement on Feb. 4, the day before National Signing Day and less than a month after he pocketed a $4.3 million retention bonus.

Trying to make a hire at a terrible time in the calendar, Michigan State was up against it. The school swung and missed at Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, who had a close relationship with Dantonio but knew a bad situation when he saw it.

Thrust into panic mode, the Spartans vastly overpaid Tucker to leave Colorado. Never in college sports history has a coach with a losing career record (5–7 after one season in Boulder) been paid $5.5 million, until Michigan State backed up the Brinks truck to Tucker’s house.

Thrust into a brutal situation, taking over a sliding program on the cusp of a pandemic that would wipe out spring football and complicate the preseason, Michigan State looked like a lost and unprepared team against Rutgers. But here’s the thing: the Scarlet Knights were in the exact same position, and came out of Saturday looking better than they have in years.

And that’s the part that should resonate on Rocky Top. For nearly three years, Tennessee (18) fans have been congratulating themselves on their mutiny that stopped Schiano from being hired as coach of the Volunteers. Hidden behind disingenuous “concerns” about Schiano’s potential knowledge of what Jerry Sandusky was doing when they both were assistants at Penn State was the real reason: Tennessee fans thought they were too good for Greg Schiano.

So they got their athletic director fired and replaced him with former coach Phillip Fulmer (19), a comfort hire if ever there was one. Fulmer then proceeded to do a very SEC thing: He hired a Nick Saban assistant coach.

That was Jeremy Pruitt (20), who after Saturday’s annual beatdown from Alabama is now 15–15 as coach of the Volunteers and coming off three straight blowout losses. Here’s the damning detail hidden in that record: Twelve of those 15 losses are by more than 21 points. When it goes bad under Pruitt, it is wheels-off bad.

Every knowledgeable football person in America knows that Tennessee is a far better job than Rutgers. There is no comparison. Yet for comparison’s sake: the Volunteers’ record over their last 136 games is the exact same as Greg Schiano’s in his 136 games as a college head coach. They’re both 69–67.

Imagine what an overachiever like Schiano might have done with the resources, tradition and backing of Tennessee, had he gotten the job in late 2017. But the Volunteers got themselves an SEC ball coach instead, and the results speak for themselves.

MORE DASH: Count on Nothing | Sun Belt Respect | Malzahn Luck