July 26, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
CHICAGO - Chris Norman has been around Michigan State long enough to have formed a historical perspective on the football program's reaction to outside perceptions.
Low opinions have served as motivation to some Spartans over the years while the infrequent high regard has offered a measure of validation for what they've been trying to accomplish.
The team's bemusement over the mixed messages greeting MSU at the Big Ten Football Media Days is indicative of a new layer of development in head coach Mark Dantonio's six-year program, according to Norman, a senior outside linebacker.
A straw poll of Big Ten media naming defending conference champion Wisconsin and Legends Division runner-up Michigan the league favorites doesn't rankle Norman the way it may have a few years ago. And, Sports Illustrated's listing of MSU as one of three long shots - along with Southern Cal and Oregon - to loosen the Southeastern Conference's grip on BCS dominance doesn't raise the Spartans' level of self-confidence.
"The reason I appreciate playing for a school like Michigan State is because our players have done a really good job of blotting what everybody else says out," Norman, who is fully recovered from the shoulder injury that limited his involvement at spring practice, said Thursday. "We know what we have in the locker room, we know what we can do as a team and we know the talents that we have.
"That being said, we're going to do what we know this team can do, so other people's opinions, whether they're good or bad, don't really matter."
The appraisals are at once conflicting and contradictory. The way a team finished the previous season usually receives an inordinate amount of consideration, rightly or wrongly, in such preseason polling. Either way, it's curious that MSU, which beat the Wolverines for the fourth-straight time en route to the Legends Division crown and a berth in the inaugural league championship game, would be picked to finish behind U-M.
And yet, Dantonio's unflappable single-mindedness has become a systemic characteristic of the Spartans, Norman said.
"I think there has been a shift," he explained. "In the past, nobody thought Michigan State was going to do anything productive, so that was obviously a huge motivator. Now that we've been getting some things done and have been getting some pats on the back, not as many people think we're terrible now.
"But now I think our motivation is playing up to our potential and being the team we can be regardless of what anybody else says, whether it's good or bad. I think it really shows how mature a team is if it can be self-motivated and wants to do well because it wants to and not because of what somebody else says."
Norman used the newly crowned NBA champion Miami Heat as an example.
"I know this is on a different-caliber level, but they showed a good way on how to do that," he said. "Last year in the championship game, you could say a lot of things people said got to them and they lost. But the following year, they shut it all out, were self-motivated and got the job done."
Sports Illustrated's assessment was based on the belief that standout defensive end William Gholston, cornerbacks Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard and running back Le'Veon Bell could start for any SEC team.
The Spartans also made a statement of equality with a 33-30 overtime victory over SEC Eastern Division champ Georgia in the Outback Bowl. An experience-laden defense, well-stocked offensive line and talented corps of running backs form the basis of Michigan State's upside.
The only major caveat affecting MSU's preseason outlook appears to be a concern over junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell's ability to adequately fill the significant void created by Kirk Cousins' departure.
While such speculation is entertaining to those on the outside looking in, it's just a bunch of noise as far as Maxwell's concerned.
"I just think it kind of proves that you can't base your worth on any of this because there are so many mixed signals," Maxwell said. "You hear one thing and as soon as you attach onto that, you hear another. So what's that make you feel about believing in what you just heard? In 2010, we were predicted to finish seventh in the conference so that's proof right there that we really know what we have in that locker room.
"Everybody else sees the product, but we see the process every day. We've always been a team that has concentrated on the people inside the walls of the program and we let the media, and the naysayers and the opinion-makers on the outside take care of themselves as we go about our business."
The Spartans don't waste time trying to make sense of, or taking offense at, one preseason poll, such as Athlon, which has them ranked 18th and behind Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, or another, such as Lindy's, which has them 12th and behind only U-M.
"It comes from Coach Dantonio and is something he tries to ingrain in everybody from the time they get here," Maxwell said. "For guys from my era, it's almost second nature because we've been through it so many times and have seen how it can go both ways. It doesn't even need to be said anymore. It's just how we operate."
Instead of being stressed out by being identified as the link between MSU's potential success or failure, Maxwell is comfortable and confident.
"I'm just a piece of the puzzle," he said. "Obviously, with the defense, offensive line and running game we have, and the receivers we have on the outside, it makes my job a lot easier and takes a lot of the pressure off me. I don't have to stay up late at night thinking the team depends only on me to win, because we have all the pieces in place.
"If everybody does their job, including me, then we have a chance to be special."
At this juncture, Michigan State has earned a place at the table, which is all that matters.
"We've also got unfinished business in terms of getting to the Rose Bowl," Dantonio said. "We've not been able to accomplish that yet, so that continues to be our goal. But, we enter into the conversation when people talk about it right now, so we're on the cusp and I think that's a positive thing as we move forward."
More opportunities will open up on the national level if the Spartans continue to reach their objectives, and preseason opinions contribute nothing to that endeavor.
"The first thing you have to do is get to that championship game before you can go to the Rose Bowl," Dantonio said. "We were able to do that last year. If you're fortunate enough to get to the Rose Bowl, that's when the conversation of a national championship is going to come into play.
"And so, we'll let things play out. The key in everything is having great chemistry and maintaining your approach and your plan."
Clearly, blinders and earplugs have become mandatory equipment for the Spartans.