The Michigan State Spartans are a team on the rise. They have been the one team in the Big Ten to take advantage of the three-year fall of Michigan and the current Ohio State struggles following the mess left by Jim Tressel. Wisconsin and Penn State maintained their standing but nobody else made a move for the top like the Spartans did.
Coach Mark Dantonio has been building something special in East Lansing. Fans are hoping for a win in this weekend’s inaugural Big Ten Championship game and their first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1988. However, winning the matchup may not be in the best interest of the program for the long term.
While I would never expect a fan base to root for their team to lose a game, it should be noted that a loss here may not be that bad. The Spartans are a team on the rise, not only in the Big Ten, but nationally as well. This season has marked the first time since 1945 that the program has had back to back 10-win seasons.
Last year the Spartans rose to as high as No. 5 in the polls before a devastating 31-point loss to Iowa. People were tossing out the “same old Spartans” line. They were able to bounce back and win their final three games which raised hopes again.
Their 11-1 mark earned them a share of the Big Ten title, their first since 1990. This also gave them a marquee non-BCS bowl game against Alabama. As a team trying to establish themselves in the national conscious, they needed to have a strong game. They came nowhere close to that and were blown out 49-7.
A trip to the Rose Bowl this year appears to be another slaughter waiting to happen. The Big Ten is weak this year. It became apparent midway through the season that whatever team made it out of the Big Ten would only be sacrificed to Oregon or Stanford. Now that we are down to the final two contenders, a Rose Bowl loss for an established Wisconsin would not be as serious of a blow as it would be to the up-and-coming Spartans.
Oregon has made it to the Pac-12 title game and barring a remarkable upset should easily blow by UCLA and their 6-6 record. Oregon is an impressive team and one that is angry that they blew their shot at the National Championship game.
The Ducks will be out to prove just how good they really are. Even the most ardent of Spartan fans has to admit that this would be a very difficult matchup and one that their team would be a huge underdog in.
So the question is: would it be better to make the Rose Bowl but suffer another embarrassing loss or would it be better to take a lower-level bowl game and play a winnable game against a good team like a South Carolina, Georgia or Baylor? If the Spartans can continue their momentum into next season, they will then be able to handle a BCS-level game. But for now, they need a win.
Every couple of years the college football landscape sees a nontraditional powerhouse team make a run for the top. Teams like Northwestern went to the Rose Bowl and Kansas State put together a couple of good seasons. Inevitably those types of teams graduate that one good class then fade back to mediocrity. Michigan State is now on that ledge.
The Spartans are looking to make that jump from one-hit wonder to consistent contender. A blowout loss in such a widely-televised game would keep the pretender label on Michigan State. This would hurt recruiting and team image.
In order to continue building the program, its image and its place on the national scene needs a solid game against a good team. A blowout loss would damage the work they have accomplished these past two seasons.
Of course the games are played because anything can happen. A surprise win would do wonders for the program. But looking at a game where they will easily be a double-digit underdog seems like great a risk.
The Rose Bowl is too short-sighted of a goal; this program can grow into a regular contender in the Big Ten and become a name on the national scene. Right now they need good wins to accomplish that.
Good luck to the Spartan fans who will be rooting for their team this weekend, just remember a loss to Wisconsin may end up being your biggest win of the year.