MSU should embrace challenge of East

Even before the Big Ten announced its new East-West division alignment, the complaints were rolling in from Sparta (read: East Lansing, Mich.). The angst only increased when the divisions became official.

No Big Ten fan base has more outrage about the new divisions than Michigan State's. Spartans supporters wanted to be in the West, away from the Michigan-Ohio State-Penn State triumvirate. They wanted to be in Chicago as much as possible, an area athletic director Mark Hollis has talked about often as a major concentration for MSU fans and alums.

Put us in the West, they said, keep the annual crossover with Michigan and achieve competitive balance. It's so simple!

But the Big Ten brass thought otherwise, assigning divisions based primarily on geography. Michigan State, located in the Eastern portion of the league, joined the three traditional powers -- along with Indiana, Rutgers and Maryland -- in the East division.

To some Spartans fans, the division assignment is the Big Ten's latest dig at their program. Who can forget the great BCS screw job of 2010, where Ohio State, a team we learned later had knowingly violated NCAA rules, went to the Sugar Bowl ahead of a Michigan State squad that had beaten Rose Bowl participant Wisconsin. The following year, a Spartans team that came yards away from a Big Ten championship once again missed a BCS bowl, while its top rival Michigan -- a team Michigan State had defeated earlier that season -- went to the Sugar Bowl.

There's also the general feeling among a portion of MSU fans that the Big Ten always favors Michigan and Ohio State in key decisions.

From my inbox:

Max from Grosse Point, Mich: I just finished reading your interview with Jim Delany and couldn't believe it. His bias for the "protected" schools is clearly evident and disgusting. Do you think it is time for the other schools to band together and remove him?From a MSU fans seat it is obvious that there is not a level playing field in the Big Ten. Waiting until after the Bowl season to force osu to forfeit cost us a Rose Bowl trip. Phantom whistles again vs osu cost us a touchdown and the game last year. Blocking too "hard" vs Nebraska cost us another touchdown and game. It goes on and on.Is there any hope?

David from Henderson, Nev.: I was 26 years old when I made my first (and only) trip to the Rose Bowl to watch the Spartans play. If someone had told me then that MSU wouldn't be back to play in Pasadeener (as JoePa pronounced it) in the next 25 years I would have thought they were crazy. Now after seeing the official realignment, it certainly appears that a return trip will be even more difficult than ever. What are the odds that I will be able to watch MSU play in the Rose Bowl sometime in the NEXT 25 years?

I understand Max's and David's frustration. And there are others who feel similarly. Tuesday afternoon, I caught the end of "The Drive with Jack Ebling," a popular radio show in Lansing, Mich. The word "panic" was used quite a few times to describe the current state of Spartan Nation.

Panic if you'd like, Spartan fans. Complain about the Big Ten's bias against your school. Shout to the heavens about all the perks Ohio State and Michigan seem to get. It's your right to do so.

Or you can embrace the challenge of the East division. Because there's no better platform for Michigan State to find out exactly where its program stands right now.

Michigan State is enjoying its most successful stretch in years under coach Mark Dantonio. The Spartans have a team-record six consecutive bowl appearances under Dantonio. They recorded back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time in team history in 2010 and 2011, claimed a share of the Big Ten title for the first time in 20 years in 2010, and won the inaugural Legends Division championship the following year.

Many non-MSU fans irked by the potential imbalance of the divisions mention "four power programs" in the East, including Michigan State alongside Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. Whether that's true or not is up for debate -- some argue Michigan State is a superior program to Wisconsin, which is simply false -- but no one would be making that case five years ago. It's a testament to Dantonio and what he has done in East Lansing.

So embrace the difficulty of the East. Don't run away from the tougher road to Indianapolis.

"You have to take risk in order to have great opportunities," Hollis told Ebling's show on WVFN radio Tuesday. "There's a couple ways you look at things, half-full or half empty. I applaud fans' persepctive and I'm glad many of them express how they feel. At the same time, I always say you are who you walk with. You are who you play against.

"I very much want to be in a conglomerate of the best of the best."

Hollis has the right approach. Whether or not he pushed to get Michigan State in the West Division -- and I'm told he did -- he recognizes what having success in the East can do for a program still fighting for national respect in some circles.

Despite Michigan State's recent run of consistency, some can't get past the fact it began as Michigan sunk to historic lows under Rich Rodriguez. There's a belief that as Brady Hoke makes Michigan into Michigan again -- through recruiting and on-field performance -- Michigan State's program will backslide.

Michigan State can beat Michigan every year in the East. It can also take on Ohio State and Penn State every year. Time to panic? No. Time to perform? Absolutely.

"Michigan and Ohio State have historically been great foes against Michigan State," Hollis told the radio show. "They will continue to be. Those are the ballgames you want to see take place in Spartan Stadium. I'm ready to face it head-on."

Asked about the concern of some Spartans fans, Hollis said, "I understand how some could come to that conclusion, but I think as you walk through it and as you look at the opportunities Michigan State's going to have, you get pretty darn excited about what our future is going to look like."

He's excited. Michigan State fans should be, too.