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Bronze Spartan. Is MSU Third Best in the Big Ten?

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It's that time of the year again. The Rivalry, Esq. is having another one of our infamous bi-annual retreats, where Mr. Filler and I kick-back, unwind, and talk the politics of sport. This weekend we sipped martinis in the garden at the Chateau Marmont, surfed in Laguna Niguel, and drank wine in Santa Barbara county.

Driving out of the Santa Ynez mountains tonight, we got on the subject of last week's media frenzy, and Michigan State's surprising pole position. Despite being a full thirteen spots behind Iowa in Rival's Preseason 120 countdown, the sports media picked the Spartans to finish third in conference - ahead of the Hawkeyes. This, the same MSU squad that lost its top rainmakers, and left spring ball with a gigantic question mark at quarterback. Iowa, by contrast, boasts a seasoned signal-caller in Ricky Stanzi. What gives?

Well, for one there's Mark Dantonio. Members of the media syndicate see what he's done in two short years at Michigan State. Smart, cold, and disciplined, Mr. Dantonio exudes the poise the underachieving Spartans have lacked this decade.

But the real reason for the media's show of confidence is Michigan State's supposedly favorable schedule. They get Michigan, Iowa, and Penn State at home, and they won't see the likes of Ohio State. By comparison, the Hawkeyes have to play away at Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State. No fun.

But should that really be a deal-breaker for Kirk Ferentz's squad? Did the media get it right?

In short, no. But to understand why, we need to talk a bit about normative versus descriptive models of evaluation. Normative models are pure indicators. They address how a team should perform -- if they competed in a vacuum. Descriptive models, by contrast, predict how a team will perform, considering practical limitations.

Normatively speaking, Iowa is the better program. They boast more returning starpower and experience than the comparably green Spartans. But, from a descriptive standpoint there's the problem of a schedule from hell.

But is Iowa's schedule really that much tougher? Consider this likely scenario: Michigan State loses to Iowa and Penn State, and Iowa loses to Penn State and Ohio State. Both teams are tied in conference with two losses a piece. What else is left on their plates in the way of challenge?

Iowa plays at Iowa State, against Arizona, and at Wisconsin. All three are manageable games.

Michigan State, by contrast, plays at Notre Dame, at Wisconsin, at Illinois, and at Minnesota. They can win all four, but they're just as likely to go two for two.

Thus, the most likely scenario is Iowa is a two-loss team in the Big Ten. That's best case for MSU who will more than likely be a 3 loss team in conference (and a 4 loss team overall).

The way I see it, that means the Spartans fall short both descriptively and normatively. Do you agree?