Wojo: Tide turns on Spartan underdog talk

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Dallas – They’re past all the underdog talk, and only belabor the old shoulder-chip angle when asked about it. It can be tiresome explaining who you are, better off to show it.

That’s Michigan State’s plan, and it’s not built on motivational slights, no matter how it appears. Everything the Spartans have done the past six years has built to this matchup with the mighty elite, and now the question changes.

It’s no longer whether Michigan State can mentally handle the heights. It’s whether Michigan State can physically hang with Alabama, which might have its strongest defense ever. And the evidence — four straight bowl wins, 11-plus victories five times — suggests the Spartans can.

Maybe that’s why Mark Dantonio has shifted his tone, reiterating Tuesday, “You’re only an underdog if you think you’re an underdog.” I think the Spartans, deep down, have stopped thinking it, for legitimate reasons. They have top talent on both lines, from offensive tackle Jack Conklin and center Jack Allen, to mammoth defensive playmakers Shilique Calhoun, Malik McDowell, Lawrence Thomas and others.

Everyone knows who Nick Saban is and what Alabama is about. Most people know who Dantonio is — despite the occasional spelling mishap — and what Michigan State is about. The truth is, if you stripped away the names of the teams that will clash on New Year’s Eve and just inspected the accomplishments, you wouldn’t see that big of a difference.

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This is the game that could cement the Spartans’ stature, at least for those who still need to see more. Victories over Oregon, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa — all by four points or less — brought Michigan State to 12-1 and a chance to prove it belongs among the power elite, no matter what happens in the national championship game 10 days later.

“Being two of the top power football teams in the country, I think that title is on the line, too,” Conklin said. “Look at the past three years, we have pretty similar records, and unfortunately we haven’t played each other yet. They’re a great defensive line. But we believe we’re one of the best offensive lines in the nation. They haven’t played an O-line like us this year. We’re excited to show them what power football is about.”

Strong words but not hollow words, and not overly brash. If you compare the modern histories of Alabama and Michigan State, there’s nothing to debate. The Crimson Tide has won three national titles in nine seasons under Saban. The Spartans haven’t won a national title since 1966.

But let’s go ahead and play with numbers. The past three seasons, Michigan State is 36-4 and Alabama is 35-5. Michigan State has won four straight bowls, including a Rose victory over power paragon Stanford and a Cotton victory over new-money Baylor. Alabama has lost two straight bowls, beaten by Ohio State 42-35 in last year’s playoff and clubbed by Oklahoma 45-31 in the Sugar Bowl.

That doesn’t mean the Spartans suddenly have caught the Crimson Tide. It does mean the power grid is always shifting in college football. Just ask the defending champion Buckeyes, smothered at home by a Spartan team that was missing Connor Cook.

Heck, go ahead and ask Saban, who fumed after last season and then revamped his defense under trusted coordinator Kirby Smart (who’s set to take over at Georgia). They put more speed rushers on the line and rotated 11 guys, and the result: 46 sacks, most in the country and most in the Saban era.

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“This squad here, everybody is mean,” Alabama senior linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “Everybody is more together. Last year we had a good defensive line, but I’ve never seen a line like this.”

The Alabama line gets wild acclaim, rightly so. Its leading sacker, Jonathan Allen, has 10. Michigan State’s defensive line is respected, but not as touted. Its leading sacker, Calhoun, has 10.5.

No one is suggesting Michigan State’s talent is equal to Alabama, whose recruiting always ranks in the top five. But everyone should know by now Alabama’s 49-7 victory over Michigan State in the 2011 Capital One Bowl is a relic from another era.

The Spartans talk constantly about staying humble, which is easier to do when the next perceived act of disrespect is never far away. When Sports Illustrated printed “Mike Dantonio” on the cover of a limited edition, it was like a bad joke repeating itself. I should know — I’ve repeated the bad joke many times in a (futile) effort to spotlight the absurdity of it.

“We laugh about it,” Calhoun said, “but in the same sense, we’re like, see, maybe we need to be a better program.”

Crimson Tide players are casting no aspersions, and there hasn’t even been much of the tired SEC-Big Ten chatter. Heisman winner Derrick Henry called the Spartans’ defense “very physical, very destructive.”

You can’t physically count how many times the word “physical” pops up when players, coaches and media discuss the matchup. It’s the word that will matter Thursday night, because if the Spartans still have any mental hurdles, they’re not noticeable.

To Michigan State, Alabama is like a bigger, faster, nastier version of Iowa, a version the Spartans respect enough to emulate.

“Alabama’s been the benchmark for what an elite program looks like in college football over the last decade,” Michigan State tight end Josiah Price said. “They’re a physical team, we’re a physical team. They’re getting talked about a little bit more, which is where we’d like to be.”

Here the Spartans are, with the best opportunity ever to show where they’d like to be. And also, who they have become.