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Rooney: Mel Tucker’s ugly debut at Michigan State reiterates opportunity for Karl Dorrell with CU Buffs

Spartans commit seven turnovers in Tucker’s first game

Colorado football fans could be heartened by an ugly scene that unfolded about 1,200 miles to the east on Saturday.

At the very least, Karl Dorrell’s long-awaited debut as the head football coach at the University of Colorado is unlikely to be as unsightly as former CU coach Mel Tucker’s debut at Michigan State.

The Big Ten Conference, which had been the Pac-12’s partner in postponing the 2020 football season until early 2021, returned to action on Saturday, two weeks ahead of the Pac-12’s planned Nov. 7 kickoff. For Buffs fans eager for some football to root for — or, more precisely, root against — Tucker’s debut at Michigan State more than eight months after bolting Boulder provided sufficient fodder.

There was plenty to snicker at.

Tucker was rewarded for his 5-7 mark in his lone season at CU with a six-year deal at Michigan State that will pay him about $5.5 million per year. (Michigan State did announce a pandemic-spurred seven percent pay cut for this fiscal year for Tucker in July.) On Thursday, Michigan State cried poverty amid the COVID-19 pandemic by announcing the elimination of its men’s and women’s swimming programs.

Certainly that wasn’t Tucker’s call to make. But if any backers of the Spartans’ swim programs happened to watch his debut Saturday at Michigan State, no doubt they’re of the belief it was money ill spent.

The Spartans were relentless in their pursuit of committing turnovers, as a Rutgers team that forced 10 turnovers all season last year had four takeaways in East Lansing before halftime, finishing with seven total in a 38-27 win that wasn’t that close. Rutgers won just three games the previous two seasons combined. The Scarlet Knights were shut out four times last year and scored 10 points or less in four others. Nonetheless, when Rutgers took a 28-10 lead in the second quarter, it marked the program’s biggest first-half lead in a conference game since joining the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights ended a 21-game Big Ten losing streak in East Lansing. Tucker already is helping to make Big Ten history.

Oh, and Rutgers also was breaking in a new coach, sort of, as Greg Schiano coached the first game of his second tenure with the Scarlet Knights. His program at least looked as if it has practiced over the past month.

None of that is to suggest the first game of a delayed football season is proof the Buffs are better off. Tucker genuinely built some momentum on the recruiting trail and with how the Buffs finished the 2019 season displaying some fight, but he put the Buffs in a tough spot with his sudden and messy departure. That situation only worsened when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic weeks later essentially shut down NCAA athletics. Dorrell remains an untested quantity.

Still, watching Tucker’s Spartans struggle on Saturday once again highlighted the opportunity at hand for Dorrell. While there always is pressure to win in big-time college football, which coach is under a more intense microscope? The one with the big contract and the immediate expectations to compete at Michigan State? Or Dorrell, whose biggest accomplishment in Year One might be measured on how well he simply keeps the ship moving forward?

It has been said before, in retrospect, that Tucker clearly was a longtime assistant eager to climb the ladder as a head coach. Understandably, from his vantage, the Michigan State offer was too lucrative to refuse. Dorrell has had his chance to be a head coach before, and he has coaching roots at CU as well as family ties to Boulder. Only Dorrell knows how he might feel if an eventual 7-5 year at CU leads to a tempting offer from another major program, but it is easy to believe Dorrell might be less inclined to pack his bags simply because mounds of cash are thrown at him.

That, of course, is pure conjecture until Dorrell starts winning. Odds are that winning won’t start this year. Still, the bar Tucker set in his Michigan State debut is seven turnovers and seven penalties. I’ll take the under in those categories for the Buffs when the Dorrell era finally begins in two weeks against UCLA.