For MSU and U of M football, path to Big Ten glory still goes through Ohio State
In college football, Michigan State has its biggest game of the season Saturday — a matchup with Ohio State. And MSU’s coach Mel Tucker is reportedly on the verge of signing the biggest contract in the conference. Meanwhile, Michigan has a should-win, can’t-lose contest in Maryland.
Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon joined Michigan Radio Morning Edition host Doug Tribou to talk about each team's chances of cinching a Big East title. On Stateside, Nick Baumgardener, senior writer for The Athletic, joined April Baer to chat about Mel Tucker's contract and what it, as well as Saturday's game, means for the school.
Saturday's games: Michigan State at Ohio State - Noon Michigan at Maryland - 3:30 p.m.
Doug Tribou: Michigan State has been very happy with the job head coach Mel Tucker has done this season. Like, $95-million-dollars-over-10-years happy. Tucker’s reworked contract has not been formally announced, but much of the funding will reportedly come from a pair of MSU donors. Tucker already had a six-year contract. How do you like this move by MSU?
John U. Bacon: I think it's the right move. Once you get past the utter irrationality of all college football salaries, he has done a phenomenal job. He is my pick for the coach of the year nationwide. It's not coming cheap, however. $9.5 million a year — even by college football standards — is incredibly high. Just barely third place [for total contract size] behind [Alabama coach] Nick Saban and [Clemson's] Dabo Swinney, who've won eight national titles between them. So, that's a big bet. But letting him go is probably a bigger, scarier bet for Spartan fans, and as you point out, it comes from donors.
Stateside: However, though some may agree that the proposed contract reflects Tucker’s performance, the announcement contradicts recent moves by MSU that insinuate financial issues within the athletic department.
If you lost another coach like this with finances being a question, you might as well just leave the Big Ten and go play a smaller division.
Nick Baumgardener: This is still a university that had issues with finances after COVID, swimming was cancelled, you know it was tight. They’ve made a point to get out in front of this, Michigan State has, to tell us all that they’re prepared to offer Mel Tucker as much as it takes, but they’re also prepared to do it with private money because it’s not all going to come out of the regular coffers.
DT: And there was reportedly the risk that he would leave for Louisiana State University, which also would have been perceptually terrible for Michigan State after such a successful season.
JUB: Exactly right. Those rumors were true, by the way. I've got friends at LSU. They wanted him badly, including the president. And the last Michigan State coach to [make that jump] is a guy named Nick Saban. So that'd be two you lost to LSU. Not what they want to do.
Stateside: In 1999, during a high point in his career with the Spartans, head coach Nick Saban left MSU for Louisiana State. The decision doubled his salary and secured Saban’s spot as one of the country’s top coaches. Now, nearly 32 years later, the position for LSU head football coach is once again open — and Mel Tucker appears to be the top contender.
NB: If you lost another coach like this with finances being a question, you might as well just leave the Big Ten and go play a smaller division. You're not taking it serious. That would be the image or the message you'd portray. So I think they're stuck. I think they have to pay him. They have to pay them what the market says he's worth. And I think that they rushed out that number this week to try to set the market
I actually think Mel Tucker, for years, was overlooked, and this is kind of a long time coming, which is why I don't think he's going to be giving anybody any discounts on this deal. So I think that, in that sense, he's a very good coach and I don't think that they are in a position where they can afford to lose him.
That's a big bet. But letting [Tucker] go is probably a bigger, scarier bet for Spartan fans.
DT: Tucker and the Spartans head to Columbus Saturday to take on Ohio State at noon. The Buckeyes are favored, but at 9-1, this is the best Spartans team we’ve seen in several years. MSU running back Kenneth Walker the III is a Heisman Trophy contender. What will the Spartans have to do to win?
JUB: They're still big underdogs, especially at Columbus, against a great Ohio State team. But they've got a shot. Walker's got to Walker. He's one of the best tailbacks in the country, and he's got to go wild on Saturday. No question.
[MSU's] offense is good, but they really need to play defense. Michigan State's pass defense is among the worst in the nation, and the Buckeyes will test it. And then, Michigan State's going to play at Penn State the next week. A brutal finish, but they've proved doubters wrong many times.
NB: But this game is a championship game. This is a playoff game. This is for something more tangible than the Paul Bunyan Trophy. This is for, you know, a trip to Indianapolis potentially and maybe beyond to the playoffs.
DT: The Wolverines will travel to face Maryland Saturday. The Terps only have two conference wins. Michigan needs a win to keep its Big Ten East title hopes alive and it’s also the Wolverines’ last chance to work out any kinks before their own game against Ohio State next week. What will you be watching for in the game plan?
JUB: Well, Maryland had a good shot against Michigan State last weekend. They've got talent, including their quarterback, Taulia Tagovailoa, whose brother, [Tua], is in the NFL. He's great. [The Terps have] got talent, but no discipline, but if they put it together, they're a real challenge. So, if Michigan plays its game, it'll be fine. Trap game. Cannot look ahead [to Ohio State].
DT: Michigan and Michigan State are both thinking about the Big Ten East title, the Big Ten conference title game, and maybe even a spot in the college football playoff. With two games left, there’s a lot of scenarios. But for all the excitement surrounding these two programs this season, a big part of their chances come down to a recurring issue: one or both of them has to beat Ohio State. Is this the year?
JUB: I love how you framed that, by the way, "the Ohio State Buckeyes: a recurring issue." Well, here's how much it's been recurring, Doug. Since 2005, Ohio State has won 10 Big Ten titles, 10 of 16. Michigan State [has won] three and Michigan zero. And this Ohio State team wants to win it again. So you're going against the Yankees in their prime. But as in "Dumb and Dumber," I'm saying there's a chance.
[Ohio State is] playing two very good teams back to back: Michigan State and Michigan. I don't think both of them are going to beat Ohio State, but I think the odds of Ohio State beating both are not 100%. I would say probably a one-quarter, one-half chance of one of these two teams doing it. The question is which one will have the better shot? No idea, so I'm watching.
Editor's note: Quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to Tribou's full conversation with Bacon near the top of this page. You can hear Stateside's conversation with Baumgardener in the audio file placed after Saturday's game times listed near the beginning of the post.