Dec. 3, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - No one's trying to equate it with a BCS game. It can't be expected to create the same sort of a buzz that playing in certain Jan. 1 bowls do.
But anybody who pooh-poohs Michigan State's invitation to play Texas Christian University in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, or the bowl system in general, misses the point of such games.
Obviously, there's the immeasurable value of 15 bonus practices that MSU wouldn't get this winter if it hadn't qualified for a sixth-straight bowl under coach Mark Dantonio. Teams that don't go to bowls on an annual basis seem to be the same ones that don't get the extra benefit of bowl practice.
The Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl will mark the beginning of the Spartans' 2013 season as much as it closes the curtain on what has been at times a perplexing 2012 campaign, and what could be more relevant?
Beyond that, it's an opportunity to play in another intersectional game against an attractive opponent regardless of whether the sponsoring commodity are flowering plants, sugar, oranges, taco chips or tasty chicken parts. Michigan State and TCU have played just one other time, with the homestanding Spartans claiming a 26-19 victory in 1953.
There's an element of intrigue associated with this game, most notably, how will MSU stack up against what's been a headline-grabbing Big 12 opponent in recent seasons?
Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell doesn't understand why the excitement over a game between 6-6 MSU and 7-5 TCU in Tempe, Ariz., should be any different than if the same matchup featured 0-0 Spartans and Horned Frogs in the heat of summer.
"We're still playing football, and that's the best news of it all," Maxwell said. "We get the opportunity to play another game and that's a reward for the work we've put in throughout the year.
"You're going to play an opponent that is really well-matched with you and is a big-time opponent. If this game was in September or October, I think people would circle it on the calendar and look toward it. Bowl games are a big opportunity for everyone involved."
What's more, bowl games are the last college football stop for many, especially seniors, who play in them. Players on their way out often talk about how they'd give anything to put the uniform on one more time to play and organized game in a sandlot if that was the only venue available.
Senior linebacker Chris Norman was feeling those kind of pangs soon after hearing confirmation about MSU's bowl destination. The Spartans continued to battle through the disappointment of five razor-close losses for the opportunity to play in one more game - any game. "I think this one's about the players," Norman said. "And really, I think this is the only game that's been about the players, and it's been that way since the beginning. What we always wanted to do is stay within ourselves because we're a family, we're a brotherhood, and playing TCU in this bowl game is just another opportunity to show that.
"Even during this two-week break, I was really thinking of all the games I've played in at Michigan State, and how I really don't want to give that up just yet."
Of course Michigan State would have been happier had they accomplished their preseason goal of playing in a BCS game. But, the bottom line for any competitor is competition, and Norman is looking forward to seeing how the Spartans measure up against an unfamiliar foe.
"I'm really thankful that I haven another opportunity to go out and play, and for the teams around the country that don't have that opportunity, it's not a good feeling," he said. "Although this is not the perfect condition we wanted to be in, it's still a blessing we have the opportunity to go out and play football again."
It doesn't really matter to Dantonio if critics can't comprehend how important any bowl is to a program's long-term development and most of all to the players' immediate needs.
"Usually the people who dismiss these games are people who've never been in the arena, pure and simple," Dantonio said. "Before they write something like that they need to step into the arena and feel it out.
"Beyond that, every experience you have in the football uniform is a meaningful one. It's about competing."
Furthermore, this game gives devoted MSU fans in a far-off corner of the country, who rarely or never get to see the Spartans play in person, a chance to take in a game with followers who make the trip.
"We have a lot of Spartans, and a lot of people will come to our football game," Dantonio said. "That's just the nature of this program, whether they come from California, Arizona, or Colorado, or from the Michigan area or the Midwest, I think Michigan State fans will show up. They always have."
This game also won't lack for high drama and all-or-nothing risk. A victory secures MSU's fifth winning season in six years while a defeat results in a losing record the Spartans can't do anything about for eight months. Either is a better alternative to standing pat on .500 and doing nothing.
"It's big," Dantonio said. "It defines a winning program and a losing program for that year. We want to make sure that's on the winning end, the positive end. (But) disappointment's a part of life. It's how you handle it that allows you to move forward."
Michigan State and TCU are mirror images of one another. Both teams are inexperienced in key areas, relatively speaking, and the Frogs are tied for first in the nation in freshmen played - 16 true first-year players and 12 redshirts.
Both teams have struggled with moving the ball through the air - MSU because of a revamped receiving corps and TCU because it is down to starting its third-string quarterback.
And, both the Spartans and Frogs have excelled on defense.
One way or another, a bowl serves as a pivot point toward that swings those departing players like Norman toward closure and those returning, like Maxwell, to a new beginning.
"We'll have about a month to reflect on everything that's gone on and critique it," Dantonio said. "But I think the one thing (the bowl) gives us is a feeling like we can play. We haven't had a football game where we lost in a big way.
"They've all been close and five games have come down to the end. One play here, one play there, and we're a different football team. But, you have to play what you've got and we want to point our compass North. We've constantly looked at our football team and I believe the glass is half full and not half empty, and we'll play with confidence."
For such purposes, any game will do.