One up, one down

Mark Dantonio has a Big Ten championship in his fourth season in East Lansing. The question down in Ann Arbor: Will Rich Rodriguez even get a fourth year?

The regular season ended Saturday for both with Dantonio fulfilling a dream while Rodriguez’s nightmare continues.

Michigan State’s 28-22 victory at Penn State clinched a share of the conference title, the first for the Spartans since 1990 and the seventh overall.

This 11-1 season, however, likely won’t be enough for MSU to return to the Rose Bowl. Michigan State, in fact, is expected to be the odd man out among the Big Ten’s tri-champs when it comes to BCS invitations.

No conference can get more than two BCS bids. The automatic bid in this three-team deadlock, with Wisconsin and Ohio State, will revert to the Big Ten’s third tiebreaker, the highest ranked team in the BCS standings.

The updated standings will be released Sunday night. Last week’s rankings had Wisconsin No. 7, Ohio State No. 8 and Michigan State No. 10. MSU has little, if any chance, of jumping ahead of the other two.

Both teams that fall short will be eligible for a BCS at-large bid, presumably to the Sugar Bowl. Ohio State’s brand name probably will secure that spot, leaving Michigan State with a trip to the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla.

Dantonio stayed out of the debate until the body of work was complete and then he wasted no time making his argument.

“We beat Wisconsin, thoroughly I might add,” Dantonio said during his postgame radio show. “That gives us that certain distinction.

“If you want me to start campaigning, I’ll campaign.”

Michigan State defeated Wisconsin 34-24 in the Big Ten opener on Oct. 2 in East Lansing. MSU outgained Wisconsin 444-292 and held the ball for nearly 13 more minutes.

The victory, however, wasn’t secured until a 1-yard touchdown pass on fourth down with 2:43 remaining.

Dantonio watched the game from the hospital following a heart attack and blood clot in his leg.

The Spartans’ point is this: They beat Wisconsin, which beat Ohio State.

It’s obviously a legitimate beef. But if I had a vote, I’d put them in the exact order they’re in: Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State.

Wisconsin beat Ohio State and Iowa in consecutive weeks, and has been as dominant as any team in the nation recently. Michigan State not only got embarrassed in its only loss, 37-6 at Iowa, but it also played poorly in barely beating Purdue last week.

As far as Ohio State or Michigan State for the Big Ten’s possible second BCS invite, it’s really an obvious choice. Those at-large bids are more about TV ratings and selling tickets than anything. Taking Ohio State over Michigan State is a no-brainer for any bowl.

Dantonio should defend his team and do a little of that campaigning. But it will do no good in the end. Wisconsin is the best team, regardless of what happened nearly three months ago at Spartan Stadium, and Ohio State is more attractive.

So, yes the Spartans are getting cheated in a sense. But it’s just because they’re a victim of circumstance, not conspiracy.

They just picked a bad year to go 11-1. Too much company at the top.

What’s important for Dantonio is he has changed the culture at Michigan State in his short time as coach. It’s the first 11-win season in MSU history.

“It’s amazing,” Dantonio said. “Special football team, special time in all our lives. I thought we played really lights out except those last two minutes.”

Michigan State averted a potential “Same Old Spartans” finish, but barely. Safety Trenton Robinson appeared to clinch the victory and the championship with an interception in the end zone, but he decided to run it out instead of taking a knee. Big mistake. The ball got ripped out of his hands at the 4-yard line, and Penn State scored on the next play with 56 seconds left.

Tight end Brian Linthicum came to the rescue by recovering the onside kick, or it could have gotten really interesting.

“We do it the hard way,” Dantonio said.

If he wanted that Rose Bowl bid, though, Dantonio needed some help from Michigan. That was clearly unrealistic.

The Wolverines kept it close for a quarter before Ohio State starting rolling to a 37-7 victory in Columbus, the Buckeyes’ seventh straight victory over U-M.

Rodriguez is now 15-21 at Michigan, 6-18 in the Big Ten, 0-6 against Ohio State and Michigan State.

Receiver Roy Roundtree had a rough day with several dropped passes. Quarterback Denard Robinson dislocated fingers on his left (non-throwing) hand and was replaced for a while. Three more turnovers gave the Wolverines 15 in their past four games.

The defense actually played better at times, but special teams were a complete joke. Punter Will Hagerup didn’t make the trip because of a one-game suspension for violating team rules.

An 18-yard punt by his replacement, Seth Broekhuizen, gave Ohio State the ball at Michigan’s 35-yard line in the second quarter. OSU quickly scored to take a 10-0 lead.

And after U-M responded with a touchdown, the Buckeyes came right back with an 85-yard kickoff return, which was the beginning of the end for the Wolverines.

Is it the end for Rodriguez, too?

Athletic director Dave Brandon wasn’t saying. He has called rumors that a Monday press conference will be held to announce Rodriguez’s firing “rubbish.”

Brandon has said he’ll evaluate the program “after the season.” Whether he does that now or after a bowl game remains to be seen. Most projections have the Wolverines (7-5, 3-5 Big Ten) headed to the Insight Bowl on Dec. 28 in Tempe, Ariz.

If a change is going to be made in coaches, it would ideally take place soon for recruiting purposes. Signing day is in early February. Waiting to name a coach in January is far from ideal, if not crazy.

Rodriguez is trying to stay positive through all the negativity around him.

“I’m not deterred one bit,” he said during his postgame news conference. “The worst is behind us.”

As of now, though, the only vote of confidence being handed out came from the enemy.

“Michigan will be back,” said Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who is 9-1 against the Wolverines. “You don’t have to worry about that.”

There are a lot of people back in Michigan who are getting impatient and worried about just that.

Nov. 27, 2010