January 1, 2011 at 11:22 pm

John Niyo

Biggest difference between SEC, Big Ten isn't on playing field

Spartan coach Mark Dantonio takes charge as the team assembles for their official Capitol One Bowl portrait on Friday. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)

Orlando, Fla. -- The truth always gets lost in the debate: Is the Southeastern Conference truly superior to the Big Ten in football? Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio wasn't about to concede that point Friday, insisting the two leagues are on "equal footing" just as his Spartans get set to kick off against a heavily-favored Alabama team in the Capital One Bowl.

"Some would argue," Dantonio said. "But that goes back and forth, year to year."

And really, that's a tug-of-war no one's going to win unless, as Dantonio suggested, you put together an all-star team from each conference and staged another game.

He was being sarcastic, of course, as he added, "Which might not be a bad idea. Generate more money for the BCS."

Dantonio, in case you missed it, isn't a huge fan of the BCS these days, not after his 11-1 championship team was left out of the mix this winter. And he's using that — along his team's status as double-digit underdogs against Alabama — to his advantage this week.

"We'll get an opportunity to make a statement whether we are one of the elite teams in the country or not," Dantonio said.

But that's beside the point, too, in the larger debate, as Alabama coach Nick Saban tried to explain Friday when he was asked to compare the Big Ten and the SEC.

"The quality of both leagues should not be in question," Saban said, rattling off some of this season's accomplishments for both leagues.

"But if there's any difference at all, it's probably the passion of the fans," he continued. "Not that the Big Ten fans don't have tremendous passion. They just have choices. They've had choices through the years.

"I think the biggest difference that I see, from a guy that's been both places, is for a long time there weren't any pro sports in the South, so everybody kind of grew up identifying with their college team. And I think that some of that passion still sort of exists."

Sort of? Well, that's just Saban being a polite southern gentleman, I suppose.

Holding a grudge?

Earlier in the week, he was a bit more honest, when asked if he still felt any lingering ill will from the Michigan State fans he spurned more than a decade ago.

"I get this every year when we play LSU — I get it every year," said Saban, who left the Tigers for the NFL and then returned to coach one of their SEC rivals in 2007.

"They're not quite so understanding."

No, not quite. Saban, you might recall, was burned in effigy in the streets by LSU fans before a game a couple years ago. And while I'm told a couple Michigan State alums took the time to put up a pro-Spartan, anti-Saban billboard on I-94 back home in Michigan this week, I'm going to have agree with Gerald Collins.

He's the 'Bama fan from Dothan, Ala., whom I met in the hotel lobby as he and his 8-year-old son, Andrew, waited for autographs before Friday's kickoff luncheon. And here's how he attempted to settle the debate.

"Y'all don't live for football the way we do," Collins explained, before going on an unsolicited rant about Auburn's undefeated season and his distaste for Bobby Lowder, that school's notorious booster, and the Cam Newton saga and so on.

"It's not just a diversion for fans (in the SEC)," he concluded. "It's a lot bigger deal than that."

If you don't believe him, check out Saban's contract — at nearly $6.1 million, he earned more than all but three NFL coaches in 2010 — or the $31.1 million Alabama spent on its football program the last year. (Granted, that ranks second nationally — barely — behind Ohio State, a Big Ten school.)

Tribute in granite

Or better yet, just tune into Alabama coach's weekly call-in show. Saban hosted it here in Orlando on Thursday night and it didn't take long before he was asked by a young girl in the crowd if he'd promise to stay as Alabama's coach forever. Saban laughed and said the only job that might lure him away would be the one at a "really small" high school near his home in Lake Burton, Ga.

A 10-year-old Tide fan from Ohio then asked him if Saban still would be coaching in eight years when he was done with high school. Saban did some quick math, figured out he'd be 67 then, and said, "Yeah, I could see myself doing that."

Even if that's a lie — and it wouldn't be the first time Saban wasn't completely honest about his coaching future, I suppose — it appears he'll still be around Bryant-Denny Stadium, one way or another.

That's because they're already building a statue of St. Nick to put out front, right alongside the ones honoring the other four coaches who've won national championships at Alabama: Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Paul "Bear" Bryant and Gene Stallings.

The project has been in the works ever since the end of last year's 14-0 season, and after several delays, Saban clearly is getting annoyed. Not necessarily by the fact it's being built, but by the periodic questions he gets about it.

"The statue?" he said Friday, sounding exasperated when a reporter asked him if there was an update.

"That's Terry's department," Saban said, referring to his wife and the multiple attempts to "get it to look a certain way. … I don't even know where it's at. I haven't thought much about it and I really don't know when it's gonna be done."

Finally, though, he cracked a smile and a joke, "It's taking a while, though. Didn't have a hell of a lot to work with, I guess."

Have A-Day

Actually, the Birmingham News reported Friday that the Sabans have signed off on a third rendition of the 9-foot statue — the hair and face weren't right on the earlier tries, apparently — and that the Oklahoma-based company should have the final cast done in a month or two.

The university's director of athletic facilities, Thad Turnipseed — and honestly, I couldn't make that name up if I tried — says it could be unveiled at Alabama's spring game in April.

Only at Alabama, as you'd expect, the spring game isn't just a game. It's a day. Actually, it's called "A-Day" — Auburn calls it the same, by the way — and it's a spectacle. Saban's first "A-Day" game drew a sellout crowd of 92,000 with thousands more unable to get into the stadium, and it's averaged close to 85,000 fans the three years since, even though the game also is televised live on ESPN.

I asked Collins if he'd be there for that one, and he just laughed.

"Oh, yeah," he said, pointing to his son, wearing a too-big Mark Ingram jersey and carrying a souvenir football. "I don't really have a choice."

Nope, that settles it.

MSU facts

Alabama coach Nick Saban had stints at Michigan State as an assistant (1984-87) and a head coach (1995-99). He hired current MSU coach Mark Dantonio as a defensive backs coach while he was there.

Michigan State is making a fourth straight bowl appearance for the first time since 1987-90, matching the longest streak in school history.

The Spartans have lost their last four postseason games, including three under Dantonio. They have not won a bowl game since beating Fresno State, 44-35, in the 2001 Silicon Valley Football Classic. Alabama is in its NCAA-record 58th bowl.

Capital One Bowl Michigan State vs. Alabama

Kickoff: 1 today, Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium, Orlando, Fla.

TV/radio: ESPN/WJR

Records: No. 7 MSU 11-1, No. 15 Alabama 9-3

Series: First meeting

Line: Alabama by 10

john.niyo@detnews.com

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