November 24, 2010 at 10:57 pm

John Niyo

If MSU beats Penn State, Mark Dantonio has some selling to do

Mark Dantonio says he prefers to keep his focus on the field rather than on the BCS rankings. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)

East Lansing -- Mark Dantonio doesn't pretend to be a politician, and Michigan State's football coach has gone out of his way to prove it at times this season.

But if he wins this primary Saturday in the state of Pennsylvania, I have a feeling we'll see him hitting the campaign trail soon after.

If Michigan State caps off a remarkable regular season with a victory at Penn State — and considering the Spartans haven't won there since 1965, the year before Joe Paterno arrived, that's still a big if — it'll be right where it wants to be:Celebrating its first Big Ten championship in 20 years.

And yet, even then it'll leave the Spartans about 2,500 miles from where they'll feel like they should be. Barring a major upset, Michigan State's likely reward for a near-perfect season and a share of the Big Ten title will be getting shut out of the Bowl Championship Series. Instead of the Rose Bowl, it'll be the Capital One Bowl, just like it was two years ago.

California dreamin', indeed.

As everyone in Spartan Nation knows by now, a three-way tie atop the Big Ten between Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State — all currently 6-1 in conference and 10-1 overall — won't be settled by results on the field.

It'll be settled by the polls.

More specifically, it'll be settled by the BCS rankings, which include both the conflict-ridden coaches' poll and the hopelessly-contrived Harris Poll, along with a bunch of computer ratings systems that aren't even fully endorsed by the men who created them.

And right now, the early exit polls aren't promising:Wisconsin and Ohio State are ranked seventh and eighth in the BCS, respectively, while Michigan State is 10th — disrespectfully, some would say.

Which is why Dantonio reminded the local media in his weekly briefing his Spartans are the ones who handed the Badgers their only loss.

"A lot of people stopped talking about it, I guess, these days," he said, referring to the 34-24 victory Oct. 2.

Tuesday, I asked Dantonio if he felt compelled to do any more campaigning. But he's got his game face on right now, so all we got was his stump speech.

"Those are the things you talk about afterward, after you evaluate the body of work," Dantonio said. "I keep (saying), don't evaluate us when we're No. 5 in the nation going to play Iowa, because we didn't win, you know? And don't evaluate us when we're 10-1. Evaluate us after the season and then we can lobby and say, 'OK, this is what we've done and this is where we should be,' and we can talk about it. Before that, it's really irrelevant."

Talking up the positive

By then, though, it's really too late, isn't it? The polls aren't nearly as flexible as they claim to be, and the voters often have their minds made up well before Election Day.

Still, it wouldn't hurt to try, which is what Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis is doing behind the scenes, talking to Orange and Sugar bowl officials, among others.

"There's public lobbying, sure," he said. "But I spend more time developing relationships and talking to people that run the (bowl) games, so that you understand what they're looking for and then you can kind of present your case and go in with a game plan.

"One of the things we've been selling is our television ratings have been very strong — we've led the Big Ten this year in TV ratings. And I think the fact that we're 10-1 and the only team to beat Wisconsin is a positive."

Hollis goes on to talk about attendance figures and a fan base eager to travel. He notes the 20,000 or so alums in Florida, as well.

And yes, if you want to find a silver lining in all this, consider the possibilities of a return to the Capital One Bowl, which, Hollis notes, "if you look at some of the scenarios, could end up being as good as any BCS game. You're potentially going to have an 11-1 Big Ten team against an off-the-charts SEC team."

Indeed, a matchup against defending champion Alabama and former Michigan State coach Nick Saban wouldn't be a bad consolation prize.

First things first, though: Dantonio knows his team has to hold up its end of the bargain at Happy Valley. But the coach does admit he finally tuned into to watch the weekly BCS update show on ESPN. He even had his players watch some of it later.

"I wanted them to understand where we're at in the big scheme of things," he said. "And I want us to play with confidence. We're getting to that point and I wanted them to see how close we are to being exactly what our goals are.

"The championship has to be foremost in our mind, because at the end of the day, that's what you're going to remember. You're going to remember your bowl experience secondarily. But the primary thing is going to be, 'Did you win the championship?' Or did you finish second or did you finish third."

Third choice

Of course, they could win the championship and still finish third. Such is the illogical reality of the Big Ten's unbalanced schedule and a tiebreaker that uses the BCS rankings.

And to be fair — or unfair, as it were — I should point out that, like most voters, I currently have the Big Ten's Big Three in that same Bucky-Buckeye-Sparty pecking order on my AP ballot. But mercifully, the AP bailed on the BCS several years ago, so my vote doesn't count.

Dantonio and 58 of his peers — both Wisconsin's Bret Bielema and Ohio State's Jim Tressel also have a vote in the coaches' poll — can't say the same. I'm going to take a wild guess here and bet that each of those three coaches will see fit to rank the Big Ten's best differently in the final poll. Assuming they're all 11-1, that is.

So, rather than lobbying, how about a little cheering instead? Dantonio was asked Tuesday if he was personally capable of rooting for in-state rival Michigan to pull off the upset at Ohio State on Saturday.

"Personally capable, wow," Dantonio said, pausing to formulate his response. "Everything's irrelevant unless we win. So we'll worry about that after we win."

He smiled and added, "Is that a good answer?"

OK, so maybe he has a future in politics, after all.

Michigan State at Penn State

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.

TV/radio: ESPN2/WJR 760

Records: No. 11 Michigan State 10-1 (6-1 Big Ten), Penn State 7-4 (4-3)

Series: Penn State leads 14-12-1 (Penn State 42-14 in 2009)

Line: Michigan State by 1

john.niyo@detnews.com

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Michigan State’s victory over Wisconsin seemed like a big deal at the time, ... (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)
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