NCAA Football News

Michigan Football: 3 Ways Shane Morris Can Develop into Star QB for Wolverines

Shane Morris needs more seasoning before he evolves into the quarterback he’s meant to be.

Development takes time, but the soon-to-be Michigan sophomore certainly has a few things working for him—size, talent and a pro-style system.

As a first-time starter, Morris held his own while his Wolverines were shelled 31-14 by Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. His 63 percent completion rate and composure in the pocket were enough to assume that 2014 could be his year.

With a bright future ahead in Ann Arbor, Morris has plenty of time to shine—as long as he continues to adjust, that is.

 

Take Notes

Morris doesn’t have to look far to see what hopping a few hurdles can do for confidence. On New Year’s Day, Connor Cook led Michigan State to a 24-20 Rose Bowl victory over Stanford.

He wasn’t perfect by any means. In fact, he probably should have thrown at least three picks; he was lucky on two would-be interceptions but not-so lucky on the other, a pick-six in the first half.

Cook is twice the player he was in camp. A case for the nation’s most-improved quarterback could be made for the sophomore who won the No. 1 job over senior Andrew Maxwell, a former Rivals 4-star.

Next fall, Morris will start his second season with the Wolverines—he too will compete with a senior, Devin Gardner, for top dibs.

If Cook can dethrone a vet, Morris, a former Rivals 4-star, certainly can.

That’s not to say that Morris will lead Team 135 to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl Championship. But stranger things have happened.

It takes a special kind of focus to shake off the negative and embrace the positive. For Morris, the “negative” was a 7-6 finish in 2013 and what equates to garbage time on the field. The "positive" is his potential. 

Denying his upside would be foolish. 

He wasn’t allowed to bloom in 2013 because the Wolverines needed every minute possible from Gardner. Another spring and summer will only equip Morris for the better.

At 6’3” and hovering in the neighborhood of 215 pounds, he’s more than physically ready for his upcoming role.

The next phases are upstairs and in the film room. Watching Cook's game tapes wouldn't hurt. It's safe to say that Morris has his eye on the competition. 

 

Stay True to Self

As a program, Michigan tortures itself by attempting to live up to age-old standards set by legendary coaches and players from eras passed. That approach, obviously, isn’t working.

Today’s players and coaches suffer while a passionate fanbase yearns for progress. Morris, a hometown kid out of Warren De La Salle, has to be himself—a young gun with promise. He grew up watching Wolverines football.

He knows that his time is coming—with “his” being the keyword.

There’s no harm in paying homage to greats—there would be something wrong if he didn’t. He wears No. 7, but Morris doesn’t have to be Rick Leach or Chad Henne.

In 2013, Morris was the No. 4-ranked prep QB in the land, per Rivals. He doesn't have to completely forget that, but he shouldn't rely upon it. All of the elite camps and pre-college hype needs to take a backseat.

Focusing on the now is of top priority.

No longer a freshman, it’s time for Morris to grow up and seize control. Judging by what he did in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, he looks to be on the right path.

 

Encourage the Run Game

So maybe the whole “forget the past” thing was a little too much. Morris—and Michigan, for that matter—should absolutely refrain from a rearview approach.

But let’s be honest here. There is one thing that will always be a part of Wolverines football: running backs.

Although it wasn’t quite evident this past fall, Michigan has running backs—and good ones, too. Derrick Green will be a sophomore. As classmates, Green and Morris will likely be measured against one another.

A great Michigan quarterback needs a program-worthy runner. That’s one thing Henne, Leach and John Navarre had, as did others throughout the 1980s and ‘90s.

Team 134 had the No. 11-ranked rush offense in the Big Ten—very un-Michigan like, right? Ground woes were emphasized as Michigan crawled to just 10 yards during the first half of its loss to K-State.

Championship teams can run the ball. Old Michigan teams ran the ball. Future successful teams will have to do the same. There’s no way around that.

Disappointing results have been common over the past few years. The Wolverines grossly underachieved with Gardner at the helm.

Morris isn't the be-all just yet, but he's most certainly part of the solution. 

Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.

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Reliving the 1979 Sugar Bowl: Alabama's Iconic Goal-Line Stand Stops Penn State

The Sugar Bowl turns 80 Thursday night when Alabama takes on Oklahoma in the Superdome in New Orleans.

Perhaps no moment—and no game—has meant more to the history of the Sugar Bowl than Alabama’s goal-line stand that decided the 1979 victory over Penn State.

That year, long before the BCS matched up the nation’s top two teams at season’s end, the Sugar Bowl scored a major coup by matching up the top-ranked Nittany Lions with No. 2 Alabama.

Toward the end of the fourth quarter, Alabama linebacker Barry Strauss turned in a season-defining play when he met Penn State running back Mike Guman shy of the goal line.

Strauss’ fourth-down stop meant the Crimson Tide thwarted the biggest fourth-quarter threat of a high-powered Penn State offense that struggled to move the ball on the biggest stage. ESPN.com’s Ivan Maisel later ranked the play No. 6 of “The 100: The Plays, Performances and Moments That Define College Football.”

The goal-line stand essentially sealed the victory as well as Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s fifth national championship.

Bryant broke through for another national championship, while heartache again befell Penn State coach Joe Paterno.

Ironically, Paterno and Penn State handpicked the Crimson Tide for the bowl game. Marty Mule’s book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” detailed Paterno’s decision to spurn the Orange Bowl, wanting to secure a national championship with a win.

The move made sense for Paterno and Penn State.

Paterno, who led PSU to No. 1 for the first time in program history during the 1978 season, wanted to leave nothing to chance toward the end of another undefeated regular season.

At the time, Paterno had never won a national championship despite having finished with unbeaten, untied campaigns in 1968, 1969 and 1973. The Nittany Lions finished no better than No. 2 during those three seasons.

When Penn State chose to take on Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, it set up the ideal matchup of the nation’s top two teams.

Even better, the game lived up to the hype, making it arguably the best Sugar Bowl, historically.

Alabama’s goal-line stand effectively won the national championship for the Crimson Tide.

Penn State’s vaunted offense, led by quarterback Chuck Fusina and the passing game, struggled to move the ball against the Alabama defense for the majority of the game.

The Nittany Lions appeared to get their big break midway through the fourth quarter. Alabama quarterback Jeff Rutledge pitched to unsuspecting running back Major Ogilvie. The ball bounced off Ogilvie and fell to the ground where Penn State recovered it at the Alabama 19-yard line.

Two plays later, Fusina completed an out pattern to tight end Scott Fitzkee. It appeared Fitzkee had a chance to score, but Alabama cornerback Don McNeal, who was covering a receiver deeper in the end zone, came off his assignment to blast Fitzkee out of bounds at the 1.

Considering the Nittany Lions’ offensive struggles, this certainly seemed to be their best—and potentially last—opportunity to tie the game.

Penn State running back Matt Suhey tried to jump over the top on third down, but Alabama defenders Curtis McGriff and Rich Wingo met him approximately one foot shy of the goal line.

Confident from a day of dominance, Crimson Tide defensive lineman Marty Lyons delivered possibly the greatest trash-talk line in Sugar Bowl history. “You better pass,” Lyons warned Fusina.

The words proved prophetic on the following play. Penn State again tested the middle of the Alabama defense on fourth down. Running back Mike Guman seemed to have a path to the end zone before Crimson Tide linebacker Barry Krauss shot through the middle to deliver a punishing hit just shy of the end zone.

The collision left the Nittany Lions empty-handed—both on the drive and in the national championship department.

Meanwhile, Alabama, behind coach Paul “Bear” Bryant won back-to-back national championships for the 1978 and ’79 regular seasons. The 1979 Sugar Bowl gave Bryant his penultimate title.

Bryant’s defense, which he described as “a bunch of average players,” held Penn State to just 182 total yards of offense and one third-quarter touchdown.

Bryant’s team did just enough on offense to win the game against a fantastic Penn State defense that allowed 8.8 points per game during the regular season.  

Rutledge broke a scoreless tie shortly before halftime. With time winding down, Alabama called a play-action pass from the Penn State 28-yard line.

The Alabama quarterback lofted a pass into the middle of the field to receiver Bruce Bolton, who made a diving catch in the front of the end zone with eight seconds remaining in the second quarter.

Bryant said at halftime that the Crimson Tide would have tried one more pass before settling for a long field-goal attempt—a strategy that might have backfired considering the lack of time remaining.

Penn State tied the score during the third quarter when Fitzkee hauled in Fusina’s 17-yard pass for a sensational diving touchdown in the back of the end zone.

A spectacular punt return by Lou Ikner set up Alabama for the go-ahead score later in the third. Ikner brought back a Penn State punt 62 yards to the PSU 11.

Three plays later, Ogilvie scored when he turned the corner on a third-down option pitch.

Alabama stymied another Penn State scoring threat late in the third quarter when McNeal intercepted a Fusina pass into the end zone.

Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s team staged just one more threat, resulting in Alabama’s season-defining goal-line stand.

Since the 1979 Sugar Bowl, the annual contest has featured the nation’s top two teams four more times.

One such meeting saw Penn State coach Joe Paterno finally break through for his first national championship, beating No. 2 Georgia in the 1983 Sugar Bowl.

No Sugar Bowl featured a more dramatic, defining play with so much at stake than Alabama linebacker Barry Krauss’ hit on Penn State running back Mike Guman.

It might be another 80 years before anything can match it.

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Michigan State: Spartans Prove They Are an Elite Team with Rose Bowl Victory

There have been so many questions this season about how good the Big Ten Conference really is. Those questions mainly surrounded the Ohio State Buckeyes because there weren't really any other strong teams in the conference this season.

At least that is what we all thought. Michigan State showed us why we were wrong with its Rose Bowl victory on Wednesday evening.

The Spartans flew under the radar all year. Everyone seemed willing to acknowledge that the Spartans were a solid football team that was worthy of a Top 25 spot, but their name was nowhere to be found when the talk of elite college teams came up.

The reason they were not considered elite had to do in large part with an early-season loss to Notre Dame. The Spartans came up short on the road in a tough game against their rivals and it made people seriously doubt how good the team really was.

Just look at the first BCS standings of the season. The Spartans were not even in the Top 25.

Sparty managed to creep into the Top 25 the next week, though, and as the team's wins began to pile up on the year, it slowly climbed higher.

Eventually, the Spartans climbed all the way to the No. 10 spot in the BCS before their Big Ten Championship Game showdown with the Buckeyes. The Spartans were certainly given a chance in the game and many people thought they would pull the upset off because of their talented defense. 

The win in the title game over Ohio State propelled the Spartans to the No. 4 ranking in the BCS standings and sent them into the Rose Bowl for a battle with No. 5 Stanford.

Coming into the game, however, the Spartans still did not seem to be getting a whole lot of respect. Vegas Insider indicates that the game was being picked about 50/50 between college experts and fans, but the Spartans were underdogs by a touchdown to a Stanford team that was considered to have a far superior offense to that of the Spartans.

Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook stole the show in Pasadena and helped propel the Spartans to a 24-20 win over the Cardinal. The young quarterback completed 22 of his 36 attempts for 332 yards and two touchdowns.

One of the more impressive things he did in the game, though, was respond so well to a pick-six that he threw in the first half. Cook could have gotten flustered and the Spartan offense could have been derailed by the error, but he stayed poised and continued to lead his team as though the mistake had never happened.

The Spartan defense was outstanding in the game as well.

After an opening-drive touchdown by Stanford, which made people quickly question whether or not Michigan State could hang with the Cardinal, the Spartan defense responded and did not allow another touchdown from the Cardinal offense for the rest of the game.

The win was in no way a dominating performance by Michigan State, but it was a great performance against the defending Rose Bowl champions. The Spartans showed their toughness on defense, but also proved that they could put up the numbers offensively.

It truly was an elite performance. Is Michigan State an elite team, though?

There is no doubt that the Big Ten Conference is very weak. The level of competition week in and week out does not even compare to the talent levels that teams in the SEC and Pac-12 face each week. However, this should not take anything away from the Spartans.

They went on a neutral field and proved against one of the top teams in the sport that, not only could they compete, they could compete and win.

They certainly proved that they were an elite team this season and deserve to be a Top 10 or possibly even a Top Five team going into next season.

When next season comes around, the Spartans will certainly get their chance to prove once again that they are an elite team. Michigan State makes a trip to Autzen Stadium for its second game of the season to face off against the Oregon Ducks.

If the Spartans win that game and can go undefeated in the Big Ten once again, it would certainly be enough to propel them to a national championship.

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Michigan State Celebrates Rose Bowl Win by Dancing in Locker Room

The Michigan State Spartans held on for a 24-20 victory over Stanford in the 100th Rose Bowl on Wednesday, and the players let loose in the locker room.

After a big win, MSU had every reason to celebrate.

The Spartans danced to Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It," via the Big Ten Network's Sean Merriman:

And yes, Rich Homie Quan made an appearance, via Lawrence Thomas on Instagram:

Hat tip to College Spun's Matt Lombardi for the find.

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Rose Bowl Game 2014: Biggest Takeaways from Stanford vs. Michigan State

With a vicious battle in the trenches dominating the 100th Rose Bowl, Michigan State proved to be physically superior. The Spartans wore down the Stanford Cardinal and emerged with a 24-20 victory. 

Stanford looked like it was going to run away with this game early. It took a 10-0 lead into the second quarter, and the powerful offensive line and running game were finding success against the strong Michigan State defense. 

The Spartans, however, began to take this game over. It was an impressive showing, and one that taught us something about these two physical teams. Here are my three biggest takeaways from this game. 

 

Mark Dantonio Knows His Team

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio has done a wonderful job with this team. He had the Spartans improving all season, and he got the offense to buy into a safe and conservative system that allowed his defense to win games. 

The Spartans certainly seem pleased with Dantonio's coaching performance:

Dantonio saved his best for last this season:

Michigan State was physically dominant in the second half. It is clear that whatever Dantonio said at halftime resonated with his players. 

His ability to inspire such an impressive performance on the huge stage of the Rose Bowl shows that Dantonio knows what makes his players tick. 

 

David Shaw Does Not Trust Kevin Hogan

Junior quarterback Kevin Hogan was not terrible in the Rose Bowl. He went 10-of-18 passing for 143 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. 

The interception was not pretty:

On that throw, Hogan flashed his potential. It was a beautiful pass that was right on the money. The problem was that it was a horrible decision and wound up going to a receiver in double coverage. 

These kinds of decisions will drive a coach crazy, and Shaw's frustration was evident as he avoided calling pass plays at all costs. 

In the late stages of this game, Stanford chose to run on third down even when there was more than five yards to go. They also opted to try to blast away up the middle on fourth down of their final possession against a Spartans defense that was not losing in the trenches. 

 

Spartans Fans Should Be Excited by Connor Cook 

Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook did not inspire a lot of confidence in fans this season. He struggled with his accuracy and decision making. 

In crunch time, however, he was fantastic:

Against Stanford, he went 22-of-36 passing with 332 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. 

It was not a perfect performance. For instance, he threw an ill-advised pass in the first half that turned into a pick-six. 

As he settled into this game, however, he began to find his rhythm and confidence:

Cook's decision making will improve with experience, and as his confidence grows, he has all the tools needed to be an excellent college quarterback. 

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Baylor's Bryce Petty Gets Flipped into End Zone on 13-Yard TD Run

It's not often you see quarterbacks getting flipped, but Baylor's Bryce Petty did just that on his way into the end zone.

Petty took off with the football, and when he got close to the goal line, he decided to leave his feet. Central Florida defensive back Jacoby Glenn got underneath the quarterback and flipped him into the end zone for the touchdown.

Take another look look at this awesome play:

Petty's mom (wearing jersey) was in awe when watching the replay:

ESPN's Travis Haney now has something to add to Petty's scouting report:

The 13-yard touchdown brought the Bears to within a point of the Knights late in the first half of the 2014 Fiesta Bowl.

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Rose Bowl Performance Has Connor Cook Poised to Be Big Ten's Best QB in 2014

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook just put the nation on notice with his monstrous performance in the Spartans' 24-20 Rose Bowl victory over Stanford. Get used to seeing Cook in the spotlight, and don't be surprised if he emerges as the Big Ten's best signal-caller in 2014.

The sophomore from Ohio, who's rated by CBS Sports as one of the top quarterbacks in the 2016 NFL draft class, torched the Stanford Cardinal defense to the tune of 332 yards, a season high, and two touchdowns. 

Those numbers are the best that any Big Ten quarterback has put up in the bowl season so far, with only Braxton Miller from Ohio State left to play. 

With Miller graduating, the stage is set for Cook to take the throne as the conference's best gunslinger. 

In all honesty, he was widely underrated in the 2013 season. He didn't have a single multi-interception game all year, he threw for at least 200 yards eight times and had seven games with two or more touchdown passes. 

In the Big Ten, among quarterbacks who attempted at least 300 passes (seven players), Cook threw the fewest interceptions with just five. 

Before the Rose Bowl, his best showing was against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship, when Ohio State was one win away from a national title berth. 

In that game, Cook threw for a then-season-high 304 yards and three touchdowns en route to a 34-24 win. 

Among Cook's competitors for the title of the conference's best quarterback will be Christian Hackenberg from Penn State, Nate Sudfeld from Indiana and either Devin Gardner or Shane Morris, whoever ends up winning the Michigan job in the offseason. 

But all of those teams are on a downslide, while Michigan State is looking like a possible national title contender next season. 

If the Spartans want to have a chance at playing for a national title next season, it'll be Connor Cook to take them there. 

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Texas Football Recruiting: 10 Players to Watch in High School All-Star Games

The high school football all-star games are about to kick off with Thursday's Under Armour All-America Game and Saturday's U.S. Army All-American Bowl. These two games bring in the best high school prospects in the country and will feature a handful of the top targets making their college decisions live on TV.

The University of Texas has offered more than 30 athletes competing in the two all-star games, but nine of those either plan to commit to Texas or are still in the mix to land on the 40 Acres.

Here's a look at whom to watch in the high school all-star games.

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Rose Bowl 2014: Conservative Cardinal Own Worst Enemy vs. Michigan State

Stanford hasn’t lost much in the three seasons David Shaw has been head coach. The Cardinal’s 24-20 loss against Michigan State in Wednesday’s Rose Bowl was just their seventh in Shaw’s tenure, but a recurring critique from the more recent Stanford stumbles is the coach’s offensive play-calling.  

Shaw didn’t deviate from the game plan that carried Stanford to a second consecutive Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl appearance. The Cardinal stepped up toe-to-toe with Michigan State’s ballyhooed defense for a throwback slugfest, and the Spartans punched just a little bit harder.

Aside from Tyler Gaffney’s 47-yard carry in the first quarter and touchdown rush on the game's opening drive, Michigan State showed exactly why it’s the nation's premier rush defense by rendering Gaffney a non-factor much of the day.

It wasn’t for lack of trying, though. Gaffney carried 24 times for 91 yards, a 3.8 yards-per-carry average. Take away his big gainer, and his average was half that. 

When Gaffney couldn't get free taking handoffs from quarterback Kevin Hogan, Shaw lined the running back up in a single wing, or Wildcat. The formation has been a point of contention between Shaw and his naysayers for all three of his seasons leading the Cardinal. 

Gaffney defended the Wildcat just this week when asked at his Rose Bowl press conference, per GoStanford.com

"I love the [W]ildcat," Gaffney said. "It gives you an opportunity to be an athlete. You get the ball, you see there's not just one hole drawn up. There can be multiple. You hit it with everything you've got and hope for the best."

Gaffney was Stanford’s top offensive playmaker throughout 2013. He led the way for the Cardinal with 1,618 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns coming into the Rose Bowl. Shaw chose to stick with the one who brought him to the dance.

But while rushing Gaffney behind Stanford's outstanding offensive line pounded speed-based Oregon and blitz-happy Arizona State into submission, Michigan State gave no quarter. 

Going away from Gaffney offered the Stanford offense no relief, however.

On Stanford's final possession and facing 3rd-and-2, a Gaffney rush out of a shotgun handoff fell short. In a jumbo package on fourth down, Shaw called fullback Ryan Hewitt's number. It was Hewitt's first carry of the game, and Stanford's last offensive snap of the season. 

That Stanford’s five losses in the last two seasons have all been by single digits makes it easier to put every decision under a microscope. Such was the case in a 20-17 loss at USC on Nov. 16, as well as a 27-21 defeat at Utah on Oct. 12. 

The narrative in those Pac-12 tilts, however, was that Shaw went away from Gaffney in calling for Hogan to pass more. He threw 27 passes at Utah and 25 at USC, including a critical red-zone interception in the latter.

Hogan passed 18 times against Michigan State, completing 10, including his first attempt, a 43-yard connection with Michael Rector. Hogan also found Devon Cajuste on a 51-yarder in the third quarter.

Otherwise, big plays were hard to come by against Michigan State's "No Fly Zone" secondary. 

Stanford receivers dropped a few passes. Hogan's lone interception went through Rector's hands and landed in Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes'. It was a difficult play for Rector in double-coverage, but as indicative of Stanford's inability to mount much offense as Gaffney's snuffed-out rushes. 

Certainly some of the Cardinal's offensive anemia is due to the conservative approach. 

But play-calling was not the only reason Stanford lost. Hardly. 

The Spartans defense answered the bell against a stout offense and lived up to its billing. The offense also found a way to do just against against a Stanford defense that played admirably and kept a Cardinal victory within reach. 

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook stepped up against the outstanding Cardinal defense, sustaining drives with his poise in the pocket. 

When Stanford's pass rush reached Cook—and it happened often—he was able to get the ball out quickly. He was also unfazed by throwing a first-half interception returned for touchdown. 

The Spartans made more plays than Stanford, something that has happened all of seven times in Shaw's career. But with an offseason to marinate on his team's Rose Bowl loss, Shaw will have an opportunity to make additions to his playbook to perhaps bridge that gap.

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Rose Bowl 2014: Mark Dantonio Takes Place Among College Football's Elite Coaches

Michigan State's Mark Dantonio has become one of college football's elite coaches almost overnight. A 24-20 win over David Shaw's Stanford program in the Rose Bowl on Wednesday solidifies his standing among the best in college football.

He has turned into the Spartans' best coach since 1953—even better than Nick Saban, Duffy Daugherty and Denny Stolz when they were in East Lansing.

And he's done it by building his team into a legitimate national title contender. The only issue with an elite status is that Texas could come calling, and Michigan State needs to make sure he's locked up for years.

There's a group of talented coaches out there known as college football's elite. Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Charlie Strong, David Shaw, Jimbo Fisher and now Mark Dantonio are just a half-dozen members in this elite group.

These coaches have been built up their teams and turned them into conference champions and national title contenders. Dantonio has done just that in East Lansing. In fact, he's taken a team that was 4-8 the year before he took over and turned it into one that could have been in the national title game in 2013.

But this all started when he took over the job in 2007. Since then, Michigan State has been in a bowl every single year. After a mediocre first three years under Dantonio when the Spartans went 7-6, 9-4 and 6-7 and lost in bowl games each year, they took a massive leap into a regular conference title contender.

Over the past four seasons, the Spartans have won 11 games or more three times. They have won two conference titles and their division within the conference once. On top of that, they've won three of their past four bowl games.

Great coaches take mediocre teams and build them into squads that are in the national title conversation. With Michigan State at 13-1 and winning the Big Ten Conference in 2013, it would have been a primary target if Florida State had lost to Duke in the ACC title game. Michigan State would have also been a prime candidate for the new College Football Playoff that is coming in 2014.

Dantonio's Spartans aren't mediocre anymore. They aren't even close. And that's a testament to their head coach. A head coach who led them to their first Rose Bowl berth—and victory—since 1988. This Rose Bowl win is just an exclamation point to the job that Dantonio has done—an elite one.

 

Could Texas come calling?

Speaking of mediocre programs that need some coaching help, Texas is in the middle of a long coaching search. While it would be a long shot for the Longhorns to offer the job to Dantonio, he would be a great fit for the role of Mack Brown's successor.

Dantonio understands how to build a defense that can compete with anyone and slow down even the best offenses. With Texas' resources, it could easily pay for any sort of buyout that would be in Dantonio's new contract, according to an ESPN report.

Texas should try to sign Dantonio to a contract before Michigan State can extend him. Unfortunately, the Longhorns won't have the same foresight to hire a defensive-minded head coach from Michigan State whom LSU had back in 2000. That time, the coach was Nick Saban.

 

All stats used are either from ESPN or CFBStats.com. All recruiting rankings come from 247Sports.com.

Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, College Football, NFL and NFL draft. He also runs DraftFalcons.com.

Follow @ScottCarasik

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Rose Bowl: Are Michigan State Spartans Legit National Title Contenders in 2014?

For Michigan State fans, it's bittersweet to wonder what might have been; to picture what might have happened without a few phantom pass-interference calls at Notre Dame in September. But it's fun as heck to wonder what might be.

The Spartans beat Stanford, 24-20, in the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl on Wednesday night, refusing to be content with merely playing in Pasadena for the first time since 1988. A four-point margin was hardly indicative of the performance, either. They physically dominated a team that was billed as physically dominant, and they did so on both sides of the ball.

By every objective metric, 2013 was a rousing success for Michigan State—especially on the heels of last year's star-crossed 7-6 campaign, when five conference games were lost by 13 total points. The Wolverines' little brother is all grown up, and given the direction of this program, it's fair to question its ceiling.

Can this team contend for a national title next season?

The upcoming offseason will be an important one in East Lansing. First and foremost, the Spartans need to ensure that they retain head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. The former is rumored to be a candidate for the Texas opening (via Josh Slagter of MLive.com)—perhaps you've heard about it—and the latter has already been offered (and rejected) a head-coaching job for a team, Connecticut, that played in the Fiesta Bowl just three short years ago.

Still, both men seem genuinely committed to building up this program, and even though loyalty means little in the sordid world of college football, Dantonio's recent extension is a very good sign that he will stay. And if the band stays together in 2014, why can't MSU compete for a spot in the first College Football Playoff?

The losses on defense will be felt, but Narduzzi's return would be more important than that of any player. Guys like Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Darqueze Dennard cannot be replicated, but the Spartans have dealt well with personnel losses these past few years. There's no reason to expect anything different.

Remember, after all, that before winning the Jim Thorpe Award in 2013, Dennard himself was replacing a Michigan State legend in Johnny Adams. There were questions about how this defense would fare after losing its best pass-defender, along with important front-seven players like William Gholston.

It seems to have turned out just fine.

Trae Waynes was one of the breakout stars in the Big Ten this year, and just like Dennard, he should thrive with a promotion to No. 1 cornerback. The same goes for almost every position on Michigan State's defense.

Narduzzi keeps this cupboard well-stocked; as long as he remains in East Lansing, the defense will be good enough to compete for a Big Ten championship. The real question comes on the other side of the ball.

To that end, Michigan State's fate rests squarely on the arm of rising junior quarterback Connor Cook, who ended the year with two very strong performances against Ohio State and Stanford. He was so-so for most of the season—remember, Michigan State scored just 14 points against Purdue in October—but appeared to turn the corner late, once the team was officially "his."

He needs to carry that momentum into the offseason while challenging himself to get better. This cannot be the extent of his potential. The ranking will certainly improve after the Rose Bowl, but Football Outsiders' F/+ still placed MSU as the No. 51 offense in America during the regular season.

Since that statistic was initially recorded in 2007, no national champion has finished with an offense below No. 5, checking in with an average of No. 2.5. Half had the top-ranked offense in the country.

Defense alone might win Big Ten championships and Rose Bowls, but balance wins crystal-football trophies. Especially if the defense takes a slight step back next season, the offense must find a way to catch up. Cook will be back. Running back Jeremy Langford will be back. Of the 18 Spartan players who caught a pass this season, 17 are underclassmen.

If Cook can make the "leap" and the coaching staff remains intact, this team is good enough to beat every team on its schedule—even a slate that includes a road trip to Oregon and a visit from Ohio State in 2014. The advantage is clearly in Michigan State's favor, especially with Michigan mired in such a funk.

After Wednesday's game, Dantonio spoke of being satisfied with his team's "completion," according to ESPN Big Ten. That's all well and good for now, but the Spartans' ascent is not yet complete. Starting next season, this squad will have a target on its back and goals that exceed winning the Rose Bowl.

But that's a good problem to have.

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Rose Bowl 2014: Michigan State Saves New Year's Day for the Big Ten

The Big Ten started New Year's Day 1-2, and Michigan State went down 10-0 early to Stanford in the Rose Bowl—if you listened closely you could hear the eulogy of the Big Ten being typed out all over the country once again.

Instead, the Spartans found 17 unanswered points and took down No. 5 Stanford, 24-20, in the Rose Bowl.

Suddenly 2-2 on New Year's Day has a lot nicer of a ring to it than the typical 1-3 and an offseason of asking questions about the future of the Big Ten and where it is all going wrong for the conference. 

Those who doubted it could happen can be forgiven; after all, we've been here plenty of times before—with the Big Ten starved of a win in the Rose Bowl for the majority of the past decade.

The Big Ten did hold a 1-9 record entering the 100th Rose Bowl this year, after all.

Following a quick 10-0 Stanford lead in the first quarter, the "here we go again" feelings seemed appropriate.

Cue the heartbreak and long offseason of Big Ten bashing. But then Michigan State woke up—or more appropriately, MSU quarterback Connor Cook woke up. 

Cook, the sophomore quarterback who was overshadowed all month by the talk of Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan, had the game of his young career for the Spartans. 

He completed 22 of 36 passes for a career-high 332 yards and two touchdowns. The only blemish on his near-perfect night was an interception that ended up going for a 40-yard pick-six the other way, making it 17-7 Cardinal. 

Like all good quarterbacks do, Cook put the mistake in the rearview mirror quickly and led his team to another victory over a supposedly better team. 

For all that Cook did, perhaps the most fitting moment of New Year's Day across the Big Ten took place on the biggest play of the Rose Bowl. 

With Max Bullough suspended, his replacement, Kyler Elsworth, would make the ultimate save. 

Stanford faced a 4th-and-1 with under two minutes remaining, only to see a play to fullback Ryan Hewitt be stuffed short of the needed yardage by an airborne Elsworth. 

With the win, Michigan State saved the Big Ten from becoming the brunt of all jokes, although some have found a way to rain on the parade already. 

Somewhere Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is having the last laugh, popping champagne bottles and handing out high-fives—and he has Michigan State to thank for making New Year's Day a success instead of the usual dismal failure for his conference. 

Now, perhaps the Big Ten can go forward and actually put up a winning record in the not-too-distant future.

Crazy idea, right?

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