Tuesday, August 2, 2011

MSU needs to continue improving on the field, alter their reputation to become BCS contenders

Not long after Mark Dantonio took over as Michigan State’s football coach in 2006, he explained his plan for turning the Spartans into a BCS caliber program:
“Our first step was to try to get to a bowl game, and I think we did that in ’07…Our next goal was to try to go to a New Year’s Day bowl game (which they did in the 2008 season), and our next step is to go to a BCS championship-type game.”
In spite of a 2010 regular season in which the Spartans went 11-1 and won a share of the Big Ten Championship, they were still left out of the BCS. This left many MSU fans screaming about a BCS conspiracy and their overall lack of national respect. After all, they could make a pretty strong argument that they were more deserving of a BCS bid than Wisconsin, who they beat head to head, and Ohio State.

Unfortunately, the Spartan football team has not yet moved beyond the point where a single strong season can prevent them from getting overlooked on a national level. Part of that is due to the program’s less than stellar track record over the past two decades, and part of it is due to the negative perception that the nation has attached to the Big Ten in general after their disappointing showings in BCS Bowl Games in recent years.

Mark Dantonio may not have initially realized it, but changing the nation’s perception of the Spartan football program plays a role in the process that he needs to take before his teams can begin to make it to BCS games as he desires. While the BCS touts itself as a mathematical system that in part considers a team’s overall record and strength of schedule, popularity and perception are subjective variables that also come into play when teams are ranked and even selected to go to prestigious bowl games. That is why the Spartans lost out on BCS bids to Wisconsin and Ohio State last season.

The Spartans must convince the nation and pollsters that they are a legitimate football power, and not just a one year wonder or some paper tiger that scraped by with an easy schedule. Changing their national image will not only involve holding up their end of the bargain on the field - meaning less blowout losses and more last second wins on trick plays that have catchy names when they are on national TV - but it will also take some extensive lobbying and PR work.

Coach Dantonio finally seemed to realize the political game that is involved in college football at the end of last season. The usually quiet and low-key coach affirmatively went to the media and lobbied hard for his Spartans to get a BCS bid over Wisconsin over Ohio State. His Spartans ultimately lost out on that bid to their more established conference rivals, but Dantonio made sure that America and the respective bowl committees were fully aware of what his team had accomplished.

Sure, it would have helped his long-term case had his Spartans not gone on to lose to Alabama 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl, but at least the national media thought about Michigan State as a football school after Dantonio implored them to consider his team based upon the merits of their season, as opposed to any preconceptions that may have had about the Spartans as a program.

On the field, the Spartans are steadily making progress. As recently as a year ago the local media would frequently throw the phrase “same old Spartans” around whenever they would collapse or lose a game that they were supposed to win. Ironically, after a season in which they won every game that they were supposed to win, and then even found a way to win a few more that they weren’t, the Spartans were written off by many as overrated or lucky. To me, that sounds as if Mark Dantonio has his Spartans on the right track.

Changing the perception of a program is not an overnight process, but as long as the Spartans keep improving on the field, their final step in becoming a BCS contender is making sure that the rest of the nation knows about them.

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