The folks who dole out national recognition, the ones in charge of establishing college football’s uppermost tier of elite programs have taken their sweet time with Michigan State.
But after years of being overlooked, treated almost like a non-factor when it came to Big Ten championships and national championships, the Spartans are finally being included in the group of contenders. And boy have they earned it.
In eight seasons in East Lansing, Mark Dantonio has done terrific things with this program. Four of the past five seasons have ended with double-digit win totals. The last two have been particularly noteworthy, with back-to-back trips to big-time bowl games and back-to-back wins in big-time bowl games and back-to-back top-five finishes. A Big Ten championship and win in the Rose Bowl capped a remarkable 2013 campaign. Last season, it was an amazing come-from-behind win over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.
Dantonio and the Spartans have established a consistent winner in the Big Ten, established a team that’s been knocking on the door of playing for a national championship. Now, heading into the 2015 season, they’ve finally been recognized, voted the No. 5 team in the country in the preseason AP poll. The Spartans are even finding their way into a heck of a lot of preseason College Football Playoff predictions. They’ll likely be favored in a huge Week 2 matchup with Oregon in East Lansing.
They’ve earned all those things. But they won’t let their long-overdue recognition change their mindset. According to the Spartans, Michigan State is still the overlooked underdog.
Heck, Shilique Calhoun knew the question was coming before it was even asked.
“I know your question. Let me try. ‘So since you guys are highly ranked this year and you’ve been doing well, do you still think you’re underdogs?’ Yes. I’m going to tell you why,” the Michigan State defensive end preached last month during Big Ten Media Days. “We have goals and aspirations each and every year, and as well as we did last year, we didn’t reach our goal. One of our goals was to play in the Big Ten championship. That was something we were unable to do because we didn’t compete on the level that we should have. There’s a lot of areas where we could still correct. Even if there’s not a chip on our shoulder for people not respecting us, there’s a chip on our shoulder from realizing we can do better. Being more so disappointed in ourselves knowing that we didn’t make it as far as we could knowing that we had the potential we needed to make it that far.”
These past few Michigan State teams have achieved more than most teams in the program’s history. But that’s simply not good enough for these Spartans. While they certainly reveled in their accomplishments, they almost seem to talk of wins in the Rose and Cotton Bowls as failures. You read Calhoun’s comments. The expectations might be high this year for the Spartans, but among the Spartans they’ve always been high.
It’s national championship or bust for Michigan State. And while that might seem insane for a team that has to face Oregon and Ohio State in rematches of games the Spartans lost by a combined 31 points a year ago, borrowing a quote from “Captain America: The First Avenger” seems appropriate.
“The sanity of the plan is of no consequence.”
“And why is that?”
“Because he can do it!”
That he is Dantonio. And why shouldn’t we expect him to win 12 regular-season games, win a Big Ten Championship and reach the College Football Playoff? All he’s done in the last few years is win. Ohio State is a juggernaut, sure. But Michigan State is right there. The Spartans have earned the right to stand alongside — not behind — the Buckeyes as national-title contenders.
And they care not for the national respect that’s maybe taken a year or two too long to gain traction. They’re simply going to pretend like it doesn’t even exist.
“You can go to any program, you can go to a D-III school and they’ll say the same thing. ‘We want to play in the national championship.’ That’s just something that they want to do, that’s something that every college wants to do, every college athlete wants to do. And we didn’t have the opportunity neither,” Calhoun said. “So that’s just another chip on our shoulder that we’re going to use to catapult us into the season and keep us working hard and making sure that we’re still reaching higher each and every year.
“And even when we do make it to the national championship — just like when we made it to the Rose Bowl and we played well, then it became what you could have done better on an individual play. Now it’s how can you correct each and every individual play and get better on each and every individual play.
“So if it’s not America giving us our chip, it’s ourselves. We find a way.”