Blogs and Commentary

posted 08.29.2011 at 11.26 a.m. by Jac Coyne

Morning Jac: Michigan State's Lonely Road

At first glance, Michigan's departure from the MCLA to pursue its varsity dreams might appear to be a boon for Michigan State. Like most teams, the Spartans couldn't beat the Wolverines – they lost their last 10 games to UM, with the last win coming in 2006 – which was a particularly galling streak considering the rivalry between the two schools. In addition, with Michigan out of the picture, State should cruise to the automatic bid from the CCLA.

In reality, Michigan's move will have a significantly negative impact on the Spartans during the upcoming season. The largest consequence will show up on MSU's schedule. With a couple of months to go before head coach Dwayne Hicks has to submit his schedule, he only has three teams on his slate that were ranked in the final poll – Buffalo, Arizona and Arizona State. This is a long way from the 11 ranked teams Sparty had on the docket heading into the 2011 campaign.

"It is very tough getting teams to come into Michigan and play this year because you don't have a lot of teams willing to spend $20,000 to fly out and play one Top 10 team," said Hicks, who guided MSU to a No. 6 final ranking.

Last year, with the three-time defending champs acting a shiny lure, State managed to play home games with BYU, UCSB, Boston College, Colorado State and Arizona State. Now the closest team to East Lansing that could entice a top program to make a weekend trip is No. 23 Illinois, which is a five-hour drive and a member of a different conference. The Illini are a solid program, but lack the obvious cachet of the Wolverines. Buffalo and Minnesota-Duluth – a couple of other "nearby" ranked teams – are seven and 14 hours away, respectively.

Another issue emerging after the Michigan migration is within the CCLA. It is almost certain that with just seven teams, the league will have to ditch its two-division format and play a six-game conference slate. This will chew up three more dates on the Michigan State schedule that might otherwise be used for high-end non-conference competition.

While it might seem obvious that the loss of its long-time travel partner is hurting the Spartans schedule, Hicks disagrees. He isn't convinced it would have been any different if the Wolverines were still hanging around the MCLA this spring.

After the way last year played out, Hicks feels there will be more teams staying closer to home and concentrating on their conference AQ – what Hicks refers to as "the Florida State model." In addition, he thinks many teams will be saving up for Greenville, which may cost some programs significantly more than the trek to Denver. Ultimately, Hicks believes that this year's schedule would have been weaker than last year's regardless of the Wolverines presence because of the Spartans' ascendancy.

"BYU and Arizona State and Colorado State and a couple of those top teams said we're going to play out at Michigan and we'll probably beat up on Michigan State," he said. "Some of them were a little surprised when they got out here and lost two games."

With the Michigan State coach saying he's got a better team in '12 than last year, the CCLA is pretty much a slam dunk now, meaning the Spartans will almost certainly get another crack at the national title despite the weaker slate. When they do arrive in Greenville, Sparty will face a lot more unknowns, which Hicks thinks will translate into great games.

"Having teams not play each other [during the regular season] will make the national championships even more exciting because you now have them coming onto the field saying, 'I've heard about you, but now we'll get to see who's better,'" Hicks said. "It's kind of the reason we play the game. It will be an exciting time."

Until then, it will be a somewhat lonely season for Michigan State without its old rival around.