East Lansing — It might be a little early for a team to start stating its case for a spot in the College Football Playoff, but for a team from the Big Ten, it's probably going to be a season-long battle.
MSU football coach Mark Dantonio talks about the quality of the Spartans' next opponent, Wyoming, and the high expectations for his team this season.
That is certainly the case for No. 9 Michigan State, which has a loss at No. 2 Oregon on its resume and likely will spend the rest of the season trying to atone for it in the eyes of the selection committee.
But to Mark Dantonio, the No. 1 goal is still out there to be achieved — winning the Big Ten championship.
"I think a Big Ten championship ring is still going to mean the same thing," Dantonio said. "It's going to mean excellence in your area, in your league. Beyond that, great things are possible beyond that, but you have to do that first. I think that's the main focus we have to have."
Those great things include a potential spot in the playoffs. But Dantonio is adamant a team must first achieve its conference championship in order to play for the national title, specifically a conference championship game.
That could be perceived as a shot at the Big 12, which does not have a conference champion. But more likely it's a reference to the Southeastern Conference, where many believe a two-loss team that loses its division and doesn't play in the conference title game could still reach the playoff.
Dantonio doesn't believe a team in that position should go over a team that must play one more game against a quality opponent.
"We can't say, 'Hey, let's try and go 11-1 and not be in the championship game, and then we'll get into the playoffs.' I don't think it should work like that," Dantonio said. "My vision is that you should be the champion of your league before you can be the champion of the country."
It's something that hurt Michigan State in the BCS era within its own conference.
In 2011, Michigan State won the Legends Division championship before losing to Wisconsin in the championship game. While it played an extra game and lost, Michigan — a division team Michigan State beat — avoided a possible loss and leapfrogged Michigan State into the Sugar Bowl.
It didn't sit well with the Spartans then, and likely would not if it happened again.
But that doesn't mean Dantonio will change his team's goal of getting to Indianapolis for a third time in four seasons.
"I'm looking at it like we need to get to the championship game," he said. "That's our goal. That's always been our goal. We need to win the Big Ten championship. Then you springboard past that."
Last season it led to a spot in the Rose Bowl. It remains to be seen what it might lead to this time, but while Dantonio hasn't addressed it with his team, they understand what's at stake.
"I know that if you had, instead of four teams, you had eight teams every conference (champion) would make the playoffs," quarterback Connor Cook said. "But that's four conferences, so obviously not everyone is gonna make it. But I can't be the judge of that. I just know as long as we win out and do what we're supposed to do everything else will take care of itself."
As long as the playoff remains a four-team event, however, just winning a conference title won't be enough.
That fact, some believe, devalues the regular season.
"I think maybe it's like basketball a little bit where if you don't get to the Final Four, maybe it's not as successful (a season)," Dantonio said. "But expectations have something to do with that. You want expectations to be high. That's what we came here for. We came here and said that we wanted to win championships and compete for them on a yearly basis.
"But you still need to keep things in perspective. ... You got to be game-ready every single game. You've got to be ready to play and focused."
And that means a continued focus even when Michigan State is a heavy favorite, like this week against Wyoming.
"We talked about handling success," Dantonio said. "We talked about that a lot. We want to make sure we ground ourselves and look at every opportunity as an opportunity, not a given, not be entitled."
Wyoming at Michigan State
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Line: Michigan State by 30
Records: Wyoming 3-1, No. 9 Michigan State 2-1
Series: Michigan State leads 2-0 (Michigan State 34-16, Sept. 24, 1977)
Did you know? Wyoming and Michigan State had a common opponent — both lost to No. 2 Oregon.