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.”