Mark Dantonio

It's been four years since Mark Dantonio led Michigan State to a conference title and College Football Playoff berth, but the Spartans are 4-5 this season and Dantonio is on the hot seat.

LINCOLN — Nebraska joining the Big Ten hasn’t exactly been a pleasure cruise, but one of the perks was watching Michigan State in those first five years (2011-15) NU was in the league.

The Huskers and Spartans played each year, and each game in its own way was revealing. MSU had defensive linemen, linebackers and length on the edge at corner and receiver. Before Nebraska started aiming for Ohio State’s benchmark at those positions, Michigan State was doing just fine, and it was a program to which NU could capably compare itself. Nebraska even won three of those first five games.

You can have a certain respect for coach Mark Dantonio, a sturdy, tough, slightly formal man who built a program that traded blows with Michigan and Ohio State. He wasn’t a celebrity like Urban Meyer or Jim Harbaugh, but he fit the lunch-pail attitude of Michigan State fans who are, perhaps, the most blue-collar bunch in the league.

But after Michigan State’s College Football Playoff berth in 2015, a lot of the tougher, mid-three-star players who built Dantonio’s empire left. Like a lot of coaches, he aimed for a little higher class of talent. And things started to erode until now, when Michigan State is slipping back to where Dantonio found the program in the mid-2000s.

From the start of the 2016 season to now, Michigan State is 24-23. The offense has hovered around three touchdowns per game. The defense has allowed about that, too. Of the 47 games, 22 were decided by 10 or fewer points. Michigan State is 11-11 in those.

Spartan football has plateaued. A 37-34 loss to Illinois — in which Michigan State, in its ludicrous neon uniforms, lost a giant lead — is the latest indignity to Dantonio’s past four seasons.

The coach has taken heat for not making major changes in his offensive staff — he mostly shuffled around job responsibilities — and bristled earlier this season when asked to revisit the decision after a 38-0 loss to Wisconsin.

“We’re seven games into the schedule,” Dantonio said. “I think that’s sort of a dumbass question, to be quite honest with you.”

It’s a fair question after MSU gained 149 yards and scored zero points, but the tenor of Dantonio’s response reveals how sensitive it is. And as MSU heads to rival Michigan as a 14-point underdog, it underlines the need for a big upset to prolong Dantonio’s tenure.

Harbaugh, who often likes to poke at Michigan State, had nothing but love for Dantonio in his Monday press conference.

“We understand Coach Dantonio’s a master motivator,” Harbaugh said.

Dantonio will need every speech and trick he’s got. He may need it, too, to give him one more year on the job.

My pick: No. 14 Michigan 31, Michigan State 24

Other Big Ten picks

No. 15 Wisconsin (7-2, 4-2) at Nebraska (4-5, 2-4)

11 a.m., BTN

The Badgers are unchanging and happy to be that way. Nebraska is undergoing its most significant transformation since the mid-2000s. Is there a game, just one, where NU shows its progress and fights in an unexpected way? Yes, but Wisconsin’s run game is what it is — excellent. Even against good defenses.

Line: Wisconsin by 13

My pick: Wisconsin 33, Nebraska 21

No. 24 Indiana (7-2, 4-2) at No. 9 Penn State (8-1, 5-1)

11 a.m., ABC

Odd line here. It’s kind of like Illinois-Michigan State last week. Indiana has an offense very similar to Minnesota’s, and Penn State’s offense — a boom-or-bust operation that has loads of talent but average consistency — hasn’t changed all year. The Nittany Lions win, but this should be a football game.

Line: Penn State by 14

My pick: Penn State 37, Indiana 27

No. 17 Minnesota (9-0, 6-0) at No. 23 Iowa (6-3, 3-3)

3 p.m., Fox

The Hawkeyes have won four straight games in the Floyd of Rosedale series and six of the past seven. How much will Minnesota have in the tank after an emotional win over Penn State? Plenty. The Gophers have defied all odds to this point. While Iowa has played spoiler often — Ohio State in 2017, Michigan in 2016, Penn State in 2008 — it won’t happen here.

Line: Iowa by 3

My pick: Minnesota 23, Iowa 20

No. 2 Ohio State (9-0, 6-0) at Rutgers (2-7, 0-6)

2:30 p.m., BTN

With zero incentive to be merciful, the Buckeyes won’t be and almost can’t be with 74 players on the travel roster.

Line: Ohio State by 52

My pick: Ohio State 65, Rutgers 2

Massachusetts (1-9) at Northwestern (1-8)

11 a.m., BTN

How breathtaking is it that Northwestern, a one-win team, is favored by this much over another FBS team? Is UMass tanking for a fictional draft pick? How does a team give up 53 points per game?

Line: Northwestern by 39

My pick: Northwestern 38, Massachusetts 17

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