Underdog Spartans confident they’ll remain on top

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio speaks to the media Tuesday at the Big Ten media days in Chicago.

Chicago — As much as Big Ten media days have become a rite of passage — an unofficial beginning to college football in the Midwest — so too has been the fact few people are talking about Michigan State.

In a media poll released last week, the Spartans got a grand total of one vote to win the East Division and none to win the Big Ten title.

The bulk of those votes went to Ohio State and another chunk went to Michigan. One voter said Iowa would be the champion.

As for the only Big Ten team to beat Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and the conference champion in two of the last three years? Well, it’s a situation they’re accustomed to.

“I didn’t vote for any of those reporters, either,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio joked Tuesday at Big Ten media days.

But in all honesty, overlooking Michigan State hasn’t exactly been the smartest move since Dantonio took over in 2007. He has slowly built the Spartans into a national contender, a team that has won 11 or more games in five of the last six seasons.

Since 2010, the Spartans have won at least a share of three conference championships and have beaten Michigan in seven of eight.

Throw in three consecutive seasons with a national ranking of No. 6 or higher and it proves things have changed at Michigan State.

Just getting to a bowl is no longer accepted, competing to win it all is now the expectation.

“There are not a lot of steps left,” said Dantonio, whose team reached the College Football Playoffs last season before losing to Alabama.

“We’ve got to keep climbing. As difficult as that is, when you get up there that high the competition is fierce, as it is in the Big Ten. We have to focus on one game at a time and understand who we are, understand how we got to where we are and stay focused on the task at hand.

“As simple as it sounds, sometimes it’s very difficult if you start believing maybe that you’re better than you are.”

That’s never really been the case at Michigan State, a team that has become a national program by playing with a massive chip on its shoulder. What started as a quest to take control of the rivalry with Michigan has led to an attitude that pushes the Spartans.

Each season, it’s Ohio State and everyone else. Now with the arrival of Jim Harbaugh, Michigan has garnered as much attention.

But Michigan State has taken it and ran with it, something it fully intends to do again in 2016.

“At this point it’s part of our identity,” senior linebacker Riley Bullough said. “Every year people are doubting us. I guess we like it. We seem to play pretty well and plan on doing that again this year.”

There’s no doubt it will be tougher. The voters aren’t crazy — the Spartan have some holes to fill.

The winningest quarterback in school history — Connor Cook — is off to the NFL, as are a pair of All-American offensive linemen — Jack Conklin and Jack Allen — and a three-time All-Big Ten first-team defensive end, Shilique Calhoun.

It has some wondering if a chip on the shoulder will be enough for the Spartans to get back to the Big Ten Championship game for the third time in four years.

“The thing is you have to look at with our program now is what we’ve been able to accomplish as a winning culture, what is our direction,” Dantonio said. “We’ve got 31 players who have started with us at some point in time in our program. So I think the room is not barren, there are a lot of players there, and we’ll see how it all shakes out. I like where we’re at. We’ll be fine.”

What the Spartans do have is another solid defense with Bullough manning an impressive group of linebackers that should include sixth-year player Ed Davis. Junior defensive tackle Malik McDowell could be on the verge of an All-American season, and the secondary is full of experience.

On the offensive side of the ball, the running back position is solid with sophomores LJ Scott and Madre London being joined by junior Gerald Holmes. Fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor is the leader to start at quarterback, and his only start resulted in a win last season at Ohio State.

Add in an impressive group of incoming freshmen, and the Spartans expect little drop-off.

“It’s tough to replace guys,” Bullough said, “but our coaches are bringing in guys that can do that. We have all the confidence in the world in our guys, especially at quarterback. … None of us are worried about that. We’re excited to go out and show people what we do.”

They’ll get their first shot on Sept. 2 at home against Furman, and after a week off, the first real test comes at Notre Dame.

But none of it worries Dantonio. He’s as confident as he’s ever been.

“I sleep good at night, I really do,” he said. “There are certain things you can’t control and you can’t worry about things you can’t control. I do think that we’ll get great effort from our football team. We have great talent and our guys are conditioned to win.

“These are games and you don’t know what can happen in games, but I know we’ll come to compete. That’s all I’ve ever worried about. We challenge each other to compete to the highest level and I think we’ve answered that already.”