All the power in this corner of the galaxy belongs to MSU's Dantonio

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Mark Dantonio's influence is undeniable, with 11 or more wins in four of his seasons at MSU.

East Lansing -- Ever since Michigan State won the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1 with a dramatic, come-from-behind effort over Baylor, coach Mark Dantonio has been hammering home one point:

Michigan State is selling results.

It's a far cry from November 2006, when Dantonio took over a Michigan State program that hadn't sniffed any level of consistent success in more than a decade.

But eight years later, Michigan State isn't just winning games here and there, sprinkling in a solid season followed by a significant letdown – a pattern that was followed often from George Perles to Nick Saban, and even to a certain extent with Bobby Williams and John L. Smith.

Entering the 2015 season, Dantonio has Michigan State among the elite in the nation. The Spartans are ranked No. 5 in the preseason Associated Press poll, the same spot they finished last season. And that followed a 2013 season when they won the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl before finishing No. 3.

The Spartans have won 11 or more games four times in the last five seasons; that has never happened before in the history of the program. In fact, only two Big Ten coaches ever had a similar five-year stretch – Fielding Yost at Michigan and Jim Tressel at Ohio State.

Michigan State has reached a bowl game in each of Dantonio's eight seasons after going to just three bowls in the previous eight years. The Spartans have won four straight of those bowl games (Outback, Buffalo Wild Wings, Rose, Cotton) and captured Big Ten championships in 2010 and 2013.

That second Big Ten title, a win over Ohio State in the 2013 conference championship game, is the only time Urban Meyer has lost to a Big Ten opponent as coach of the Buckeyes.

Needless to say, the results speak for themselves.

"The consistency that Mark Dantonio has put in that program I think is nothing less than spectacular," Big Ten Network analyst Glen Mason said. "It's one thing -- and it's not to be underestimated how tough it is to develop a good team, a strong team. It's another level to develop a strong program. That is what he's done.

"Michigan State, they've had their moments in the past. But when they get to the level where you think of them like you do the other marquee teams where they just reload every year – to me that is where he's got them."

Turning the tide

Getting to that point would have been hard to fathom on that late November day in 2006 when Dantonio was hired. Over the previous seven seasons, after the departure of Saban, the Spartans had a grand total of two winning seasons. Michigan was the king of the state and had dominated the series, on the field and on the recruiting trail.

While the Wolverines were bringing in nationally-rated classes, they were also busy beating up the Spartans on a yearly basis. Michigan won 10 of 12 games beginning in 1996 and capped a six-year winning streak in 2007, Dantonio's first season, when it rallied to victory in East Lansing.

Mark Dantonio

After that game, Dantonio uttered his "pride comes before the fall" line. Since then, Michigan has won just once and gone through a pair of coaches while the balance of power has shifted.

Michigan State is now king, even with Jim Harbaugh taking over in Ann Arbor. That hasn't changed entering this season. In fact, the attention poured on Harbaugh and the Wolverines fits perfectly for a Michigan State program that has thrived on the idea they are routinely overlooked.

Even at No. 5 in the country, the phrase "chip on our shoulder" is heard often.

While the Spartans run with the feeling, it mystifies others.

"When you look at the program, what they've been able to accomplish the last number of years, even last year," Mason said. "To think the only games lost were to Oregon and Ohio State, the two teams that played for the national championship. And then they beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl, a team that thought they should be in the national championship.

"Ever since that game it seems like the whole discussion has only been on two things – Ohio State winning the national championship, rightly so, and Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. It's kind of like, 'Hey, did you forget about us? We've been pretty good and we think we'll be pretty good.'"

Reaching higher

Even so, Michigan State is getting patted on the back plenty, too. Not only are the Spartans winning on the field, Dantonio and his staff are changing perceptions on the recruiting trail.

The 2016 class already ranks in the top 10 in the nation, the best ever for Dantonio.

"I think their image and their perception has changed so dramatically," ESPN recruiting director Tom Luginbill said, "that it has opened some doors in recruiting for them and maybe some regions that five to seven years ago they wouldn't have bothered going into."

But before the next class of Spartans arrives, this Michigan State team might be Dantonio's best. They have experienced and talented lines on both sides of the ball, and a seasoned, winning quarterback in Connor Cook.

And after coming up short in their two biggest games last year – Oregon and Ohio State – the Spartans have adopted the phrase "Reach higher." They know how good they are, but they also know they haven't arrived.

With Dantonio at the helm, those goals no longer feel as far-fetched as they did in late 2006.

"We're here but we need to go farther," Dantonio said. "We're already up there. We're competing at a very high level. But we need to go a little bit higher to get where we want to be."