College football: Michigan, Michigan State season preview with John U. Bacon
The calendar has flipped to September, the smell of pumpkin-spice lattes, cakes, and candles is in the air, and all of that means it must be time for college football.
Michigan State will open its season at home in East Lansing against Western Michigan Friday night. Michigan will host Colorado State Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor.
For our annual season preview, Michigan Radio Morning Edition host Doug Tribou talked to sports commentator John U. Bacon.
Western Michigan at Michigan State, Friday - 7 p.m.; Colorado State at Michigan, Saturday - Noon
Doug Tribou: The Michigan State Spartans open their season Friday night at home in East Lansing when they host Western Michigan. Kick-off is at 7 o’clock. MSU head coach Mel Tucker is back for his third season with a massive new contract he signed last fall. What’s gotten your attention this offseason as Tucker heads into his third year?
John U. Bacon: Well, two things. One, that massive contract and $95 million for 10 years guaranteed. Second of all, NIL, which is Name, Image, Likeness, a fancy phrase for how you pay your players these days, which is now allowed. They've got an office of seven people to get that going at Michigan State. They are light years ahead of Michigan on that one. So, off the field, Mel Tucker will get it done.
DT: MSU lost star running back Kenneth Walker III to the NFL, but quarterback Payton Thorne is back after a monster season. He set the school’s single-season record with 27 touchdown passes last year. He’s a redshirt junior. How well will he do without Walker as a threat to run?
JUB: Not, probably, quite as well. More pressure on him, of course. No question about that. However, look, he's a very good quarterback. He had a lot of great games last year. They've beaten Michigan twice under Mel Tucker. And you also have a two-game warm up, if you will, to their season. Western Michigan, [Friday]. Next week you've got the Akron Zips. Not making that up, Doug, named for the "Akron Zipper." Not kidding you.
DT: Okay, let’s turn to Michigan. The Wolverines open their season Saturday at home. They’ll host Colorado State. Kick-off is at noon at the Big House. John, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Jim Harbaugh is starting the season with a quarterback controversy. And he’s got a very unusual plan for dealing with it. He’ll start Cade McNamara Saturday. Then next week against Hawaii, he’ll start J.J. McCarthy. What do you make of that strategy?
JUB: It is controversial, but I love it and for two reasons. And you may recall a book called "Let Them Lead," Doug, where I spell this out. A couple of things: One, you water all the plants, you know, let them decide who grows. And two, get out of the business of trying to pick the winners in your office, let them decide it.
In this case, you get a very good tryout [against] equivalent teams, both of them Michigan should beat. When you give a quarterback the second half of a game versus his own start, it's very different because by then Michigan's probably ahead. The game's not as tight. In this case, you get a pretty fair comparison and let them sort it out. And this will get the best out of both of them, I'm sure. So by week three, you should know who's who.
DT: John, normally right now I'd ask you something about each team's chances this year, and the expectations are high after big seasons for MSU and Michigan last year, but I want to pull back for a minute. This summer, we learned that UCLA and USC will be joining the Big Ten Conference in 2024. There have been many, many changes in Big Ten college football over the years, but this is an enormous one that could bring more. Will you be trying to savor these last couple of seasons with the
sort-of-old system that we've gotten used to?
JUB: From the category of "get off my lawn?" Yes, yes, I will. [laughing] And look, I mean, the USC, UCLA thing, the Big Ten now stretches from Rutgers in New Jersey to Los Angeles. You know, any geographical pretense is out the window.
To their credit, at the Big Ten, they made no claim that this is better for student athletes, no claim that is better for the fans, no claim that it's better for anybody other than the bottom line from this. You get this gigantic TV contract. Right now, 16 teams in the Big Ten, forget math, and it's going to be 18 or 20 or even 24, they say, before long. So at that point, it's Big Ten in name only. Enjoy it while you can people because it won't last.
Editor's note: Quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can hear the full interview near the top of this page.