It was back in 2015 when Michigan State last won the Big Ten, finishing the season 12-1. The Spartans were chosen for the College Football Playoff. At that point, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio was at the highest point of his career. The 12-win season marked the third straight year in which Dantonio's Spartans had won at least 11 games and the fifth time they had done so in six years. Michigan State had certainly surpassed Michigan in the Big Ten hierarchy, and with three conference titles in six seasons, it was one of the top programs in the league.
That was only four years ago, but it feels a lot longer than that after watching Dantonio's Spartans fall to No. 15 Michigan 44-10 on Saturday. Michigan State was embarrassed by its in-state rival only a week after it blew a 31-10 lead against Illinois in the fourth quarter. Saturday's loss dropped MSU to 4-6 on the season, meaning the Spartans need to win out to finish at 6-6 and get to a bowl game.
It also felt like the last time we'll see Dantonio coaching in the Michigan State-Michigan game.
While that 2015 Big Ten title and CFP berth marked the high point of Dantonio's tenure, things have not been rosy since. Michigan State lost to Alabama 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl and then went 3-9 the following season. They recovered with a 10-3 season in 2017 but have come crashing back to Earth over the last two years. Even including that 10-3 season, Michigan State has now gone 24-24 since 2015, 15-19 in Big Ten play.
Against Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State -- Michigan State's chief rivals in the Big Ten East -- the Spartans are 3-9 since 2016. This season alone, those three teams have outscored the Spartans 106-27.
No wonder there have been rumblings and whispers about this being Dantonio's final season in East Lansing, Michigan. Those murmurs are only going to gain steam after Saturday's blowout loss.
Even before the Michigan game began, Dantonio was indirectly criticized by former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. Now a member of Fox's college football pregame show, Meyer had some harsh words for what he's seen from Michigan State this season as an analyst.
"You watch Michigan State play. How many NFL players do they got?" asked Meyer. "That doesn't look like the defenses I used to go against. They had first-round corners, Le'Veon Bell. I don't see that. That's coaches, recruiting, development."
All of which are responsibilities of the head coach.
This 2019 team has dealt with injuries as well as a suspension to defensive captain Joe Bachie. It's had six players enter the transfer portal since the season began. All of this should be taken into consideration when judging the season, but this team isn't an outlier. What we've seen from the Spartans this year is a continuation of what we've seen in the last couple of seasons.
As for Meyer's comment about the talent level of the roster, there's data to support his statement. From 2011-16 (coinciding with the 2010-15 seasons), there were 21 Michigan State players taken in the NFL Draft, an average of 3.5 players per season. Of those 21 draftees, six were selected in the first three rounds. In the last three drafts, the Spartans have seen five players taken with only two of them going in the first three rounds. A quick scroll through the CBS Sports' NFL Draft Prospect rankings for 2020 doesn't show a single Spartans player in the top 100.
Now, none of this should overshadow what Dantonio has accomplished during his time in East Lansing. His 111 wins with the Spartans are more than any other coach in program history. His stretch of success between 2010-17 was the best run that Michigan State's had since the 1950s and 1960s when it claimed all six of its national titles. But Dantonio is also operating without the athletic director that hired him, and he's gone 11-12 under new leadership with five straight losses this season.
All good things must come to an end, and it certainly feels like that end will be coming soon enough for Dantonio in the green and white.