Big Ten

Big Ten preview: Overlooked again, perennial-power Spartans don't sweat lack of hype

Big Ten preview: Overlooked again, perennial-power Spartans don't sweat lack of hype

Mark Dantonio is easily the Rodney Dangerfield of the Big Ten.

Not nine months removed from his team winning the Big Ten championship for the second time in three seasons, Michigan State is hardly anywhere to be found among the chatter when it comes to predicting this year’s conference champ. In fact, most prognosticators deem the conference-title race a two-way battle between Michigan and Ohio State. You know, two teams the Spartans beat last season — winning in both Ann Arbor and Columbus.

But in classic Spartan style, the lack of respect isn’t bothering Michigan State. Heck, they prefer things this way.

“We like it, it’s fine. I don’t mind,” tight end Josiah Price said during Big Ten Media Days. “Talk about Ohio State all you want, talk about Michigan all you want. We’re going to come play and we’re going to play our game, and results will speak for themselves this fall.”

“At this point, I just feel like it’s part of our identity. I feel like every year there’s people doubting us,” linebacker Riley Bullough said. “But I guess we like it because we seem to play pretty well. And that’s just what we plan on doing again this year.”

That’s been the truth throughout Dantonio’s tenure in East Lansing. Starting as a middling Big Ten program, Dantonio has built Michigan State into a legitimate national power. Five of the past six seasons have seen double-digit wins. The past three seasons have featured a pair of wins in the Big Ten Championship Game, a trip to and a win in the Rose Bowl in 2013, a trip to and a win in the Cotton Bowl in 2014 and a trip to the College Football Playoff last season.

But with all that success, there is an unimpressed feeling for some surrounding a team that was beat up in that College Football Playoff appearance, getting blown out 38-0 by Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. As far as Dantonio has brought this program, there’s still an opinion among some that it’s a longer-than-usual flash in the pan, the lack of staying power proved by getting rolled by the Tide.

Dantonio acknowledges there’s still a ways to go, something that shouldn’t come as a surprise considering he’s leading a program that has national championship expectations on an annual basis.

“That game sort of got out of hand. My wife tells me, ‘Get over it.’ She says, ‘Get over it, you lost,’” Dantonio said. “What I said to our football team is, hey, we've gone this far, but there's still a ways we have to go. Don't hang your head. Let's get on with business. Life's full of ups and downs. There's going to be down times. To me it's how you handle the down times that define you. It's easy to walk around when you've won. More difficult when you've had a loss and you have to regain your composure and you have to move forward with the process. So Michigan State's always been about the process. This is just a stepping stone. That was a step back down the staircase. Time to take another step up.”

Of course, Michigan State has some things working against it that make those Michigan and Ohio State predictions perfectly warranted. The Spartans will be breaking in a new quarterback, need to replace three starters on both the offensive and defensive lines and still have questions about a secondary that last season looked far removed from its one-time title of “No Fly Zone.”

But part of being a perennial power is being able to reload. There’s little question about Ohio State being able to do that after the Buckeyes lost an immense amount of talent to the NFL. Why shouldn’t the Spartans get the same treatment?

“It is tough to replace guys, but the thing with our coaches is they’re bringing in guys that can do that,” Bullough said. “We have all the confidence in the world in our guys, especially at the quarterback position. We feel like we have three guys that can start there and do a great job. So none of us are worried about that, we have all the confidence in the world. And we’re really just excited to go out and show the world what we can do.”

Dantonio’s biggest concern isn’t that challenge of replacing departed playmakers. It’s actually that his team hasn’t lost enough. For the past three seasons of unprecedented success, players had the memories of a woeful 2012 campaign in which the Spartans went 7-6 to drive them. The only players still around from that team are now fifth-year seniors, meaning the vast majority of the roster has done nothing but win at Michigan State. Dantonio said his challenge is keeping the drive the same despite the expectation of winning and winning big.

“There's a culture there, expectation is there to win and the confidence is there to win,” Dantonio said. “When we come down the line at the end of a football game and there was an opportunity to win, our players know how to win. So when the game has been close we found a way. Won a lot of close football games.

“With that being said, we've got some guys that should be on first and have been born on third. In other words, they've experienced all the good, but they haven't seen too much of the difficult. So we've got to get those guys primed. Our younger players, all they've seen is the last three years of what we've been able to accomplish. Our fifth-year seniors, they've seen some other things where in 2012, how we had to get ready and everything. So I think you have to be able to handle the bad times as well as the good. You've got to be able to gear yourself up and understand that these things aren't a given, that you've got to play and you've got to work hard to be able to gain credibility and to win football games.”

But at the same time, the journey from that 7-6 season to a 36-5 record over the past three seasons shows why Michigan State should never be overlooked — even though the Spartans always are.

“It’s been crazy," Price said. "My freshman year, going to Michigan State, and the 7-6 season we had, it was kind of like, ‘Dang, I thought I was coming to a program that had everything together, that was winning games all the time.’ And that was just a little bump in the road, and I think we learned a lot from that season. And now it’s so exciting and so fun to come to different things and people want to talk, ‘Oh, you won two Big Ten championships, you won this, you won that, you’ve won this big game, you’ve won in the Shoe, you’ve won in the Big House.’ It’s been an amazing opportunity.”

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?