LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

When Ohio State rolled over Oregon to the national championship Monday, it was not only a chance for the Buckeyes to revel in their success, but also a moment for the Big Ten to walk with its collective heads held high.

For most of the season, the conference was considered weakest of the Power Five. Many, in fact, believed the Buckeyes didn't belong in the playoff.

But after Ohio State dispatched Alabama the same day Michigan State beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl and Wisconsin defeated Auburn in the Outback Bowl, the Big Ten was playing second fiddle to no one.

The question, however, since then is whether anyone within the conference has a chance to compete with Ohio State.

Considering its dominating run to the title combined with a youthful lineup, more top recruits coming in and a coach — Urban Meyer — many believe is the best in the business, figuring out which teams can compete is a legitimate question.

At Michigan State, the feeling is there is a simple answer. With back-to-back top-five finishes, highlighted by wins in the Rose and Cotton bowls, the Spartans believe they are in position to not only battle the Buckeyes, but also to end up in the same spot next season — playing for a national championship.

"We're just not that far away," coach Mark Dantonio said on the Big Ten Network. "A lot of teams are like that. If you look a little bit further into the future, you can dream big and great things can happen. That's where our football team is. I think we're in the conversation."

Considering Michigan State is the only conference team to beat Ohio State the last three seasons and has dominated teams in its division, there is no question the Spartans are players in the Big Ten East — and the country.

That belief was bolstered by the fact that quarterback Connor Cook and defensive end Shilique Calhoun decided to return for their senior seasons.

"I don't think there's any question that our two biggest recruits (were) Shilique Calhoun and Connor Cook," Dantonio said. "I think when you have two guys that are basically All-Americans making a decision to return, it gives you a great push."

And Calhoun didn't mince words when asked if a shot at winning a national title was a reason for returning.

"It was definitely a big factor," he said. "I understand the talent we have here, understand the coaching. And I understand what we can do this year. I know we have guys who can play, guys who can compete on a national level."

And that belief isn't held just in East Lansing.

As good as Ohio State has been — and can be — there is plenty of respect for what Dantonio has done at Michigan State, which has won four straight bowls and is consistently among the top teams in the country.

"It's a phenomenal job Mark Dantonio has done of elevating that program in the big picture, not just the respect within the Big Ten Conference, but I think nationally as well," ESPN analyst Jesse Palmer said.

And just as the nation doesn't see a drop-off from Ohio State, Meyer sees the Big Ten as a whole on the upswing. He credited the bowl victories by Wisconsin and Michigan State for motivating his team against Alabama.

"I still think top to bottom, we have some work to do in our conference, but it's moving," he said. "I see a lot of aggressive recruiting and some really good stuff going on in our conference. ... You've been told you've been bad for so long, at times the psychologist part of it takes over. You start believing you're not very good, and that's not true at all."

Dantonio spent most of Monday in Dallas as an analyst for ESPN and the Big Ten Network. And much like he did the year before the Rose Bowl, he soaked up the atmosphere and came away believing the Spartans can get to that point.

"The things that I've seen … and the things that I've been a part of, it gives you the chills a little bit because you know that you're very close to being in a situation like this," he said. "We're part of the conversation, that's where we want to be ... We're inching our way forward."

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE