East Lansing – If games were played on paper, Michigan State would appear to have no chance against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl.
In fact, the Spartans would seem to have no shot at building one of the winningest programs over the last six seasons, winning 11 games five times while capturing four straight bowl victories, three Big Ten championships and a two consecutive top-five national rankings.
However, that's just what Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has done leading into the Dec. 31 College Football Playoff game. And he has done so with players clearly outranked in one area – recruiting.
It could be a case study for the debate over how much weight should be given to the rankings, especially considering since 2011 – the year this season's fifth-year seniors arrived at MSU – Alabama has brought in 20 five-star recruits while Michigan State has had a grand total of one.
According to Rivals.com, Alabama has had the top-ranked class in four of the last five years, dropping to second in 2015. Michigan State's best mark in that same stretch was 22nd, the ranking it had in both 2014 and 2015.
Of this year's fifth-year seniors, including players like Connor Cook, Jack Allen and Shilique Calhoun, only one player was rated better than a three-star. That was offensive lineman Brandon Clemons, a player who has bounced back and forth between offense and defense during his career and is now one of the first extra guards to come in when Michigan State rotates its line.
Notable in that 2011 class was starting tight end Paul Lang, who rated only two stars, as did former Spartan Trae Waynes, who was a first-round NFL draft pick last spring.
None of it, however, has mattered on the field. Michigan State routinely has beaten teams with players that ranked higher coming out of high school, and it's the same approach the Spartans will take against the Crimson Tide.
"There's one thing that I remember Joel (Heath) said before the Ohio State game," linebacker Darien Harris recalled. "They put their pads on just like we do: One foot, one leg has got to go in the football pants at a time.
"Just when I think of guys that play at Alabama … I think of Cyrus Jones, who's their starting corner now, starting punt returner who I played against in high school. At the end of the day, they're still our peers. They're still guys that we played against, and with, in high school. We still have the same dreams, goals and aspirations coming out of high school, and we're still the same level and caliber of players."
While Dantonio and his staff have been experts at developing talent, they have started to bring in higher-ranked players. In 2014, when defensive tackle Malik McDowell was the lone five-star, the Spartans also added six four-stars. In 2015 there were seven four-stars, and so far for 2016, there are 10 in a class that likely will be Dantonio's best.
Whatever ranking they hold, Dantonio is confident his players match up with any in the country.
"You walk down that hallway over there into our facility, there's about 34 names of guys who are playing in the NFL," Dantonio said. "Guys like Le'Veon Bell, and Darqueze Dennard, and Trae Waynes and Kirk Cousins and on and on it goes. We've got a lot of players that are playing at the highest level, and that's why we're successful. … We've got good players, and they expect success."