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'U' uncertain of place in mysterious conference

September 24, 2003

Before this season, the MSU football team was seeing nines.

Almost every "expert" predicted the Spartans would once again sit near the cellar of the Big Ten conference. From Athlon Sports, to Street & Smith's and the Sporting News, the common opinion was that the Spartans would be riding low - just above lowly Indiana and Northwestern - despite their quirky new coach from the West.

But now, with its new attack-style defense and pass-oriented offense, MSU can feel a breath of new life. But how far have the Spartans really come?

Sitting pretty at 3-1, already halfway to bowl eligibility and only two seconds from being a perfect 4-0, it would be possible to imagine the Spartans finishing near the top of the conference standings. But with the conference season looming on Saturday, there are still plenty of questions to be answered.

This week, head coach John L. Smith avoided any predictions on his team's conference finish, using the old coaching mantra: "We're just going to take it one game at a time."

"This week is going to be a big test for us," Smith said. "You're always, as a coach, very optimistic, but I think we'll finish about what you'd expect."

The Spartans face last season's Big Ten champion Iowa at 12:10 p.m. Saturday at Spartan Stadium.

If MSU plans on finishing near the top of the conference standings, it will have to beat a top-tier team such as Michigan, Ohio State or Iowa, something that would be difficult and uncommon for the Spartans to accomplish.

"I think our chances are real good," senior defensive end Greg Taplin said. "If we play hard, we can play with anybody in the nation."

In fact, the Spartans have finished in the top four of the conference football standings only once in the past 11 years, when they tied for second place in 1999. At that point, quarterback Jeff Smoker was a freshman and current Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress and 49ers linebacker Julius Peterson were the team's stars.

Now, after a troubled past season and two more seasons under his wing, Smoker will try to return the Spartans to the bowl picture. But, before MSU thinks about bowls, they will need success in the Big Ten. One approach Smith is taking is humbling his players after their win at Notre Dame.

"We are still the team that got beat by La. Tech," Smith said. "Don't think that you're neat, don't think that you've got it all down. Don't think that, because we don't have the answers guys. I don't think we're by any means satisfied with how we played last week."

For now, the league favorites still include Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa and Minnesota. Three of those teams still haven't lost a game this season, and Michigan lost a close game on the road at Oregon.

Wisconsin and Purdue were considered part of the upper tier of Big Ten teams in the preseason, but early losses to University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Bowling Green hurt each team's standings.

When asked about entering the upper division of Big Ten play, Smith responded, "We've got to prove that. You always think you can be, but you've got to prove that."

The positive for MSU is that each of those teams has a powerful, run-based offense that might play into the Spartans' hands. With the third-ranked rushing defense in the country, the Spartans first object will be proving themselves against Iowa.

"They come in thinking they're going to out-physical us," junior defensive tackle Matthias Askew said. "We have athletes on our defense and we can make up for our mistakes with athletic ability. It makes us feel good that we're near the top in the nation in defense."

In the cellar of the Big Ten, a place that the Spartans will try to avoid, lies Indiana, Illinois, Northwestern and Penn State.

Penn State, MSU's final opponent, is the only real surprise in that group. The Nittany Lions have struggled behind quarterback Zack Mills so far this season, losing to Nebraska and Boston College.

The Spartans will be trying to put last year's 2-6, eighth-place Big Ten finish in the past when they open the conference season with Iowa - something that many players can't wait to do.

"We don't really care about last year," Taplin said. "Everybody goes back to last year, but I'm really tired of hearing about last year."

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