This is Sparty. He is muscular. He is the mascot for your new favorite Big Ten team. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)
By Martin Rickman
Throughout the preseason, Campus Union is providing a service: It will present one team from each of the six BCS automatic-qualifying conferences to root for in 2013. There is no scientific formula to these selections, but they do take into account some mix of watchability, intrigue, oddity and, of course, fun. The series continues with the Big Ten and Michigan State.
The Big Ten catches a lot of flak for the style of play that epitomized the league prior to the 2000s. The second fans leave #B1G country (and sometimes even within its borders), adjectives like "boring," "plodding," "unoriginal," and "dated" get thrown around a lot. That's a shame, because like many things, perception doesn't always align with reality.
Over the past few years, the individual reputations of teams in the league have continued to grow and evolve. Fans are just as likely to watch an exciting offense like Indiana or Northwestern square off against a dominant defense in the Big Ten as nearly anywhere else in the country. With coaches constantly coming and going (Purdue's Darrel Hazell comes to mind), the league's new identity seems to be finally coming into its own.
That's why now is as good a time as any to adopt a Big Ten team, for those who don't already have one. For me, that team is Michigan State. Coach Mark Dantonio is never going to make the Spartans the state of Michigan's preferred team, and Ohio State will always have more bandwagon fans than anyone else in the conference. But Sparty deserves our attention; Dantonio's teams win plenty of games and often do so in a very compelling manner.
The situation was perfect: It was Sept. 18, 2010, and Michigan State trailed Notre Dame by three points in overtime. The Spartans lined up to kick a field goal and hopefully send the game into double OT. Teams always kick that field goal, then hope their offense scores again quickly and defense makes a pivotal stop to secure a dramatic victory. Not Michigan State. Dantonio -- perhaps taking a cue from basketball coach Tom Izzo -- went directly for the win at home:
That smirk on Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly's face is one of those things you just don't forget. Game recognize game.
The Spartans called the play "Little Giants." Of course they did.
The mannequin thing
It's fairly recent, but the trend of coaches tricking their players (Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll's antics come to mind) is one I'd like to see happening more -- parallel to the trend of coaches taking their teams bowling or buying them ice cream. Michigan State had one of the better pranks:
Dantonio's belly laugh has an almost Seth Rogen-like quality to it. When he starts laughing, others start laughing as a natural reaction.
Some teams find improbable ways to win; Michigan State more often than not finds ways to lose, which makes for truly remarkable television. It's kind of like Curb Your Enthusiasm, where no matter what Larry does (and no matter how logical it seems from the get-go), you just know it's going to turn out badly. But you can't look away. Kirk Cousins brought this up in 2009 interview on ESPN.com:
"I remember being a fan watching Michigan State growing up, too, and [seeing] those kinds of losses happening," Cousins said. "Obviously, it’s frustrating."
Every time Michigan State got edged last season, [linebacker Max] Bullough remained optimistic. The defense dominated. The scores were so close. "You wanted to think," Bullough said, "that the next week you were going to get the other half of the coin." Unfortunately for Bullough and his teammates, good and bad luck aren't typically doled out in equal portions during a season.
Speaking of Bullough
The Bullough tradition at MSU is a rich one. Max's uncle, father and grandfather all played for the Spartans, and now he is the cornerstone to a Michigan State defense that ranked third in the nation in defensive F/+ in 2012. Max's brother Riley, a linebacker turned running back, is on the team, too, so the Spartan football bloodline doesn't look like it's going away anytime soon.
Max Bullough (40) is the latest in a long line of football-playing Bulloughs at MSU. (Gregory Shamus/Campus Union)
A truly great mascot for a deserving fan base. The Izzone is one of the best student sections in the nation during basketball season, and Sparty is always high energy and high drama.
There's a reason he was ranked in the top 25 mascots by SI.com.
Strong tie between basketball and football
With some schools, there's a clear divde between the football and basketball teams. They're more competitors than they are a family. Worse yet, one may feel overshadowed by the other. Not at Michigan State. The football team supports the basketball team and vice versa, whether it's Izzo showing up at practice to give the football players a pep talk:
Or former basketball players making bold football predictions during NBA Summer League:
These guys get it, and it's great to see.
The secondary coach is the guy who got turned around by Barry Sanders
Michigan State's schedule poster is amazing
I want one of these for my wall now, and I didn't even go to MSU:
A must-watch defense
Between defensive backs Isaiah Lewis and Darqueze Dennard and linebackers Bullough and Denicos Allen, there is plenty of talent on the Spartans' defense. Plus, there's the potential for plays like this:
Along with that defense, the offense should be better than it was last year, if quarterbacks Andrew Maxwell or Connor Cook can get an experienced group of receivers the ball.