Life without Max Bullough was going to happen soon, but it will be happening sooner than anyone in green and white would've imagined—as the two-time Michigan State Spartans captain is suspended for the Rose Bowl.
Waking up to the news left many thinking it had to be some kind of nasty rumor, right?
After all, the last name Bullough is Michigan State football and Max is the embodiment of that in this generation of Spartans.
Yet, that's exactly what will happen, as Bullough was not on the team flight to California and the athletic department announced the suspension via a press release.
Max Bullough has been suspended for the remainder of the season for a violation of team rules. It is extremely disappointing for all parties involved. We will stay focused and close ranks as we prepare for Stanford on January 1 in the Rose Bowl. Max will forever remain a Spartan and valued member in this team’s achievements.
There are many questions left unanswered, but perhaps the biggest is just how long Michigan State knew Bullough wasn't going to play?
Bullough's presence won't be easily replaced, and if they'd had a heads up for awhile, it may have helped to soften the blow. Michigan State can't expect to have anyone step up and replace the numbers or leadership Bullough showed on the field in less than a week's time.
Not only is Bullough a three-time starter at linebacker, but he also is a two-time first team All-Big Ten selection and a third team All-American pick this year.
This season Bullough racked up 76 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. He finishes his career with 299 tackles, 30.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks.
This team will inevitably look different on January 1, 2014 when it takes on Stanford in the Rose Bowl. It also means the Spartans' chances of defeating Stanford just took a massive hit.
Not only because Bullough will be missing, but also because the replacements for Bullough aren't exactly what you'd call experienced at linebacker.
The most likely replacement appears to be fellow senior Kyler Elsworth, who's made all of 10 tackles and one pass breakup in 13 games of limited action this season.
Elsworth has done most of his damage as a special teams demon, recording 69 tackles over his career so far. Despite that experience, he's never made a start at linebacker in his career.
Beyond Elsworth, MSU is likely to also give sophomore Darien Harris (seven tackles in 13 games) a chance to slide in at that position.
Reports also indicated that Max's younger brother, Riley Bullough, has made the switch back to linebacker after getting a look during the regular season as a running back.
In announcing the switch for Bullough, head coach Mark Dantonio indicated he planned on getting the younger one some snaps in the Rose Bowl.
"It would be nice to play him a couple snaps in the bowl game just because of the opportunities that may lie ahead for him," said Dantonio. "But we'll see how that all works out. Obviously, he's a fixture on our special teams."
How surreal would it be to see Riley, and not Max, being the one out there making a difference in the Rose Bowl?
It may be very surreal but also very helpful for the future of this program.
Losing Max Bullough is a blow to the Spartans, but allowing some of the youth a chance to show themselves against top competition will give MSU a leg up on figuring out the long-term answer to who replaces Bullough in the middle.
It's just coming sooner than anyone expected.
*Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for the Big Ten. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. You can follow Andy on Twitter: @ andycoppens.
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For most college football programs struggling to get to the pinnacle of their sport, it is easy to gaze forward and say, "Wait until next year."
Of course, not many programs are USC, and certainly there are few who not only have to overcome their opponents on the field of play, but also the administrative bludgeoning of their sport's governing body.
Yet that is what the Trojans will face next year as they try to overcome a change of coaching staff as well as deal with the last year of NCAA-mandated sanctions handed to them courtesy of the Reggie Bush fiasco.
While few would argue that a coaching change was needed following a poor finish by former head coach Lane Kiffin, only those who truly despise the Trojans would argue that the NCAA dealt with them with an even hand.
Nonetheless, that's where USC is going into 2014, and although the road back to dominance will be difficult to say the least, the first steps to that goal have already been undertaken.
With the Trojans welcoming Steve Sarkisian as their new head coach, the uncertainty that enveloped the 2013 season at that position has now been addressed.
But as one question is answered, others remain, and the most significant of those concern Sarkisian's staff—who exactly will make up the assistant coaching staff?
Although some of those subordinates have been identified—welcome back, Tee Martin and Clay Helton—others remain in limbo, and the statuses of some respected members of the prior Kiffin regime, such as special teams coach John Baxter, have recently been the subject of some ominous tweets:
— James Tate (@jamesgtate) December 24, 2013
And while most Trojan fans would lament the loss of Baxter—one of the most respected special teams coaches in the nation—those same fans remain on pins and needles waiting for Sark to drop the other shoe regarding his appointment of a defensive coordinator.
Will Justin Wilcox—Sark's defensive coordinator at Washington—be coming south to join his former boss at USC, or will it be Clancy Pendergast, the guy who did such an admirable job in that capacity for the Trojans in 2013?
So many questions and so few answers, and those aren't the only mysteries that need solving for Sarkisian as he attempts to forge his own brand on this inaugural staff that represents the "Sarkisian Era."
Now back to those sanctions, which remain like an albatross around the neck of USC's football program. While I won't further editorialize about the unfairness of that arbitrary punishment, the reality is that USC has suffered under the constraints of that sentence and will continue to do so.
In fact, the Trojans can't be expected to vie for a conference championship—much less a national title—until they are allowed to compete under the auspices of the same rules that are applied to everyone else.
And that won't occur until around 2015 or the year after, when USC will have stocked a roster that reflects the same number of scholarship players as those they compete against.
Of course, this is not to say that Sarkisian will be able to use this as an excuse, because he won't and Trojan fans wouldn't allow him to anyway.
Fair or not, USC's expectations won't be diminished by the notion that it simply doesn't have the same number of scholarship players as others. If you don't believe me, just ask former head coach Lane Kiffin if that excuse—viable or not—helped him retain his employment at the university.
Finally, at least for the upcoming year, the road back to glory will depend on which players Sarkisian has coming back in 2014.
With a depleted roster already teetering with reduced numbers, it is crucial that the new coach has a large portion of his NFL-eligible juniors and redshirt sophomores return for the 2014 season.
Speaking of which, USC fans already know that stud nickelback/safety/linebacker Dion Bailey won't be returning:
USC junior S Dion Bailey announced that he is leaving for the NFL. The three-year starter has already earned his degree.
— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) December 23, 2013
While Sark and USC will miss the versatile Bailey—who is a hell of a player—everyone concerned hopes that his departure does not signal an exodus of players who can opt for the professional ranks.
Though this possible wave of departing players remains a concern, at least USC received some welcome news when tight end Randall Telfer gave the Trojans a yuletide gift:
One more year! I'll see you guys next fall! Merry Christmas Trojan Family! #fighton
— Randall Telfer (@RandallTelfer) December 25, 2013
A few more of those and Sark's short-term efforts to return the Trojans to glory may be realized sooner than many could realistically hope for.
But while those who follow the Trojans will keep their fingers crossed that success will occur sooner rather than later, they should keep those expectations tempered by the reality of what USC has ahead of it.
And as they do, they must understand that every journey begins with a single step and that some roads wind on a bit longer than others.
But when they get there, the taste will be all the sweeter.
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