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Arlington, Texas Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio wasn't exactly baited, but he wasn't biting, regardless.

He knew the question was coming during his press conference at the Cotton Bowl media day Tuesday in Arlington, a half-hour or so after Jim Harbaugh was introduced as Michigan's new head coach in Ann Arbor.

He knew he'd be asked about his archrival stealing the spotlight, signaling a fresh new round of second-fiddle fodder for the Spartans — never mind the role his program's resurgence might have played in creating the vacancy Harbaugh just filled.

And Dantonio knew just how he'd handle it: By politely dismissing it.

"This is about Michigan State," Dantonio said, when asked about Harbaugh's hiring Tuesday. "This is about the Cotton Bowl. And we're gonna stay right there.'"

For the moment, that's where he'll leave it. And so will his players, who were in semi-rehearsed lockstep Tuesday, all of them declining to say much, if anything, about Michigan and its new leader and all the national media attention the Wolverines were garnering.

As Michigan center Jack Miller put it Tuesday, "We're not in a bowl, but we're getting talked about like we are."

Well, the Spartans are in a bowl, and Tuesday they much preferred to talk about that. Though, to be fair, Ohio State's Urban Meyer and his players were wading through the same ripple effects down in New Orleans as they prepared for Thursday's playoff semifinal against Alabama.

Meyer was asked about Harbaugh, too, and even asked if he'd like to take credit for Michigan hiring him, seeing as how he's 24-0 in Big Ten regular-season games since taking over in Columbus. But like Dantonio, the Buckeyes' boss balked.

"Anytime you add a quality coach to the Big Ten or college football, obviously it's good for college football and great for the Big Ten," Meyer said.

Dantonio, whose Spartans have won six of their last seven meetings with the Wolverines, wouldn't even go that far Tuesday. He admitted he could pick Harbaugh out of a police lineup if asked to — Jim, not John — but that was about it.

"I've met coach Harbaugh before, yeah," he said. "But I would say that I don't really know him too well. I know a lot of people who do."

'No thoughts'

Later, when I suggested he must have some thoughts about Michigan's new hire, given how much he has invested in the rivalry — "Pride comes before the fall" and "It just felt like we needed to put a stake in them" and all that — Dantonio just shook his head.

"I've got no thoughts right now," said Dantonio, the third-longest-tenured coach in the Big Ten. "No thoughts. My focus is on these guys and what we have to do." He paused, then smiled as he added, "One problem at a time."

"So you're saying it's a problem then?" I joked.

"Life's a problem," Dantonio replied, still smiling.

And off he went, to visit with some players and crack a few jokes before heading to the field inside cavernous AT&T Stadium, where Dantonio would close the Spartans' final practice of the season with an emotional tribute to his seniors.

Thursday, they'll try to finish this one off with their fourth consecutive bowl win against arguably their toughest postseason test yet, facing a Baylor team that's still fuming about getting shafted in college football's inaugural four-team playoff.

A win over the Bears — ranked No. 4 in the AP poll and fifth in the final playoff rankings — would give the Spartans their fourth season with 11 or more wins in the last five years. It would add to their profile outside the Big Ten as well, though, as Dantonio noted, the success of the last two years already has done plenty in that regard.

"I think we have a national brand," he said. "I think we have a national reputation right now. But the only way you prove that is by continuing to win. So our focus needs to be on what we do."

What everyone else does isn't his concern. Not now, anyway. I'm sure he'll find time to address Michigan's new narrative at a later date, just as I'm sure he'll find a way to use all this Harbaugh hype to his advantage.

'Always hungry'

Dantonio has done a masterful job in the last several years of playing the disrespect card, whether it's his players getting overlooked for individual awards or a rival throwing a tent spike in his backyard. And though the job surely gets tougher now, with Harbaugh joining Meyer and Penn State's James Franklin in the same division with Michigan State, Dantonio has built his program around bucking the odds.

So, sure, they were disappointed to be taking a back seat again just before they take the big stage.

"A little bit," quarterback Connor Cook said. "But I always say, no matter what goes on, no matter what people say, it doesn't really affect me or affect us as a team. We always have a chip on our shoulder, no matter what."

Dantonio makes sure of that — "We use whatever we need to use," he says — one problem at time.

"We're always hungry," Cook said. "The coach's job is always keeping us hungry."

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/JohnNiyo

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