Michigan State’s descent from being the best non-Ohio State program in the Big Ten during most of the 2010s to a basement dweller wasn’t a gradual decline down a mountainside. The Spartans seemingly fell off a cliff. A program that averaged nearly 10 wins per season from 2010-17 was suddenly in peril. Going 6-6 felt like a struggle. The Spartans started losing out on the top players in their state to Penn State, Purdue, Indiana and Northwestern — programs that have no business raiding Michigan State’s territory.

Mark Dantonio’s message had grown stale, and when he resigned on Feb. 4, 2020 — the day before National Signing Day — the Spartans couldn’t have been more desperate. That was over 2 months after Rutgers hired Greg Schiano. There were 17 new hires by FBS programs in the first 18 days of December. Michigan State was fortunate it was able to lure Mel Tucker from Colorado 7 weeks later.

The Spartans dominated No. 24 Miami (FL) 38-17 on Saturday, and that result alone wasn’t particularly surprising because they played exactly as they had in their first 2 games, albeit against lesser opponents. But looking at the bigger picture, it’s shocking to see Michigan State already playing at this level. Michigan State, just 10 games into the Tucker era, jumped into the AP Top 25 on Sunday, checking in at No. 20.

The fashionable thing is to declare a program is back after a win like this, a la Texas, but something tells me that’s not the message Tucker is delivering inside the locker room. Maybe he’s pointing to the team one spot above them (No. 19 Michigan) or the 2 other East foes above them (No. 6 Penn State and No. 10 Ohio State). This isn’t a victory celebration, but it is a validation of the culture Tucker has quickly built. That and the offseason roster overhaul.

Tucker tapped into the biggest program-building resource there is right now: the transfer portal. Of the 41 new players on the roster this season, 20 were transfers, including 17 from FBS programs and 14 from Power 5 programs. Recruiting is important, and Tucker’s class for 2022 looks great, but this is the best way to quickly build a program — older, seasoned players who have already had a taste of college football and are hungry for an opportunity as opposed to cocky, underdeveloped freshmen who haven’t quite had the wake-up call.

Tucker didn’t have much of a choice. Remember, he took over a program right before a pandemic severely limited in-person interaction, preventing him from getting to know his team. Playing in the mighty Big Ten East, he had a roster devoid of talent, and he did well to squeak out 2 wins, which was the absolute ceiling with that roster (evident by the 5 losses coming by an average of 26.4 points). Tucker had every opportunity to make excuses, but he shrugged off the notion that this is really his first season at Big Ten Media Days, giving off a sense of urgency.

Now, his players embody that same sense of urgency. Upperclassmen like Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley, who sacked D’Eriq King twice on Saturday, are 2 of 18 graduates on the roster. There’s Matt Allen and Luke Campbell, who stayed for a sixth year and is one of PFF’s top-graded tackles in the Big Ten. There’s Matt Carrick, the highest-graded guard in the country.

That’s unlocked Michigan State’s best player, Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III. He may be the best running back in the Big Ten. It’s striking how comfortable Walker (27 carries, 172 yards vs. Miami) looks as a lead back — and how lethal he is with a cutback lane. He looks like a 3-down NFL back with the way he can be a target out of the backfield, too.

It’s hard to overstate the impact Walker has made. Michigan State has been searching for a running back for years. Walker nearly has as many yards (493) through 3 games this season as Michigan State’s 3 running backs had combined (509) in 7 games last season. The Spartans have ranked 13th in the Big Ten in rushing the last 3 years; this year, they are third after upping their yards per carry from 2.7 to 6.8. The No. 1 back from 2018 and 2020 (Connor Heyward) is now playing tight end.

The reason to buy Michigan State as a legit Top 25 team, even in the challenging East, is that it has so many ways it can attack a defense, and it’s rare to see that in the Big Ten. Walker is obviously the focal point, but when defenses load the box, the Spartans have athletes out wide who are hard to match up with. When you can dump a bubble screen to Tre Mosley and he can take it 51 yards (or to Jalen Nailor for 28), that makes life so much easier for Payton Thorne, who threw for 261 yards and 4 TDs. There’s a strong bond between Thorne and Jayden Reed since they played together in high school and have already connected for 3 TDs. So many of the Big Ten’s offenses are struggling, like Wisconsin, Iowa and Indiana. Even Penn State has some work to do. The Spartans look like more of a finished product than any of them, which seems crazy to say if you think back just 2 months ago.

Michigan State was picked in the preseason to finish last in the East, and it wasn’t particularly close. That surely lit a fire under a team with this much veteran experience. Surely, finishing strong is on their minds.

That ties into Saturday. The best Michigan State teams dominated in the fourth quarter, but Dantonio’s final 2 teams struggled in this area. In 12 losses during those 2 years, Michigan State was outscored 139-13 during the fourth quarter. Nursing a 17-14 lead, the Spartans outscored the Hurricanes 21-3 in the final period.

Now, the Spartans are 1 of 2 teams in the country with 2 Power 5 road wins (Stanford is the other, though 1 of those wins was against Vanderbilt). That’s a heck of a start for a program that no one expected much out of.

Michigan State is climbing back up the mountain quickly, and I don’t think it regrets the way any of the Dantonio situation played out. Not anymore. It has a leader. Saturday confirmed as much.

What we’ve missed in college football

No. 10 Penn State 28, No. 22 Auburn 20. The one stat I heard in the lead up to this game that surprised me was that Penn State was 6-6 in White Out games. After seeing that atmosphere on Saturday night, it’s hard to believe Penn State ever loses on these nights (though to be fair, the White Out games are usually against Ohio State, Michigan or a premier non-conference opponent like Alabama).

There just wasn’t any way Penn State was going to lose this game. Even though the refs made it punt on third down. Even if Brandon Smith is still bobbling that potential pick-6. This type of night was what fans missed during the pandemic. The wild tailgates, the electric entrances, the booing of a porous officiating crew. This felt like college football perhaps more so than any other game this year (with all due respect to Wisconsin, which had to play at noon instead of under the lights).

The Nittany Lions have already put together one of the best resumes in the country, thus their No. 6 ranking. They are 1 of 10 teams with 3 wins against FBS opponents (Michigan and Iowa do, as well). Considering there are 3 other ranked teams in the East, plus Iowa in the West, Penn State could potentially face 6 Top 25 squads in the regular season. Those games won’t all have the energy and atmosphere that Saturday featured, no, but Penn State shouldn’t need it. This 2021 team could be Franklin’s best, which is saying something considering he has had 3 double-digit win teams in 7 years.

Officially time for concern in Columbus

No. 9 Ohio State 41, Tulsa 21. With some intriguing non-conference matchups and Tulsa being, well, Tulsa, this game wasn’t on my radar as one to spotlight.

The Buckeyes’ defense has taken a lot of heat the last few weeks — and deservedly so. But Ohio State’s offense was the unit that underperformed in the win over Tulsa. While I assumed the Golden Hurricane were in for a beatdown with Ohio State coming off a loss to Oregon, that was not the case at all. The Buckeyes were fortunate to have a game-breaking RB like TreVeyon Henderson (24 carries, 277 yards and 3 TDs) itching to get on the field, but something is missing.

Last season’s team overcame so much adversity, from the stop-and-start nature of the season due to the pandemic, missing players due to COVID and being under a microscope from SEC and ACC fans due to their lack of games. But they always rose to the challenge, coming back to beat Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game and walloping Clemson in the College Football Playoff. I’m not sure this team has that sort of fight in it, at least not yet.

Tulsa gave the Buckeyes all they could handle. Maybe the Golden Hurricane are the best 0-3 team in the country, but it’s hard to fathom having only 13 points at halftime with 1 of the best groups of offensive skill players in the country — if not the best. For Chris Olave to not get a catch is inexcusable.

That’s the biggest takeaway. Ohio State should have been able to do whatever it wanted against a team like Tulsa, because it is Ohio State. That’s been the standard at Ohio State for years.

Look around the East. The only team other team that has underachieved through 3 weeks is Indiana. There aren’t going to be any walkovers for the Buckeyes. They may win games by 20 points, like Saturday, but it’s not going to be easy like in past years. The East is too good and the Buckeyes clearly aren’t on that level.

Tracking non-conference B1G opponents

Since so much of the narrative and arguments surrounding teams and conferences deals with how their opponents fare throughout the season (making the result look better or worse), I’m going to track notable developments each week. Plus, it’s just fun to see if those early-season results look better or worse as the season goes on. Here are 3 noteworthy results:

West Virginia: The Mountaineers scored a big win over No. 15 Virginia Tech on Saturday, making Maryland’s Week 1 look even better. That’s the same Hokies squad that upset No. 10 North Carolina in Week 1. West Virginia looks like it could be a secondary contender in the Big 12 in that group after Oklahoma.

Western Michigan: The same team that Michigan demolished scored a big win over a fellow Alliance member, Pitt. The Broncos (2-1) will be in the hunt in the MAC, which makes the Wolverines’ win look even better.

Ball State: I thought that Penn State rolling the defending MAC champion Cardinals was going to look great at the end of the season, but Ball State (1-2) was blown out at Wyoming. Something isn’t quite clicking for a team that finished in the Top 25 last season. Not to worry, though, Penn State will have plenty of quality wins.

MVPs

1. RB TreVeyon Henderson (Ohio State)

Henderson saved Ohio State from a potentially embarrassing loss against Tulsa with 277 yards and 3 TDs, breaking Archie Griffin’s single-game freshman running record. The former 5-star recruit is a star in the making.

2. QB Payton Thorne (Michigan State)

Thorne delivered key throw after key throw to score a win over a ranked team on the road. After 4 more TD passes and 261 passing yards, he has 9 TD passes and no turnovers this season. He has been a stabilizer for a program that didn’t seem to have an answer at QB last season.

3. WR Jahan Dotson (Penn State)

What can’t this guy do? Look no further than the second-quarter drive when he climbed the latter for a ridiculous 22-yard catch and then 2 plays later completed a 22-yard pass on a trick play. His final line of 10 catches for 78 yards doesn’t really do him justice. If you didn’t know about Dotson before Penn State played Auburn on national TV in primetime, you do now.

4. RB Tyler Goodson (Iowa)

Someone has to step up and make plays in this offense, and Goodson was that guy in the win over Kent State. He put up 153 yards and 3 TDs, averaging 7 yards per carry.

5. RB Trey Potts (Minnesota)

Potts continues to deliver in the absence of star RB Mohamed Ibrahim, totaling 121 yards and 3 TDs on 26 carries in the 30-0 win over Colorado, which was coming off holding Texas A&M to 10 points.