Michigan State has set itself up as a perennial contender under Mark Dantonio. But somehow, this weekend’s Big Ten Championship Game feels like a culmination of sorts.
If the Spartans can beat the undefeated Iowa Hawkeyes on Saturday night in Indianapolis, they’ll be on their way to compete for a national championship, the one box Dantonio’s team has yet to check during its rise to the college football elite. With increasing amounts of success in recent years and a senior quarterback who’s already becoming the program’s all-time winningest signal-caller, this feels like the peak of the mountain Michigan State has been climbing for a while now.
“These are things we work on all year long, really, from the beginning of February all the way through pretty much,” Dantonio said. “So everything we do, recruiting, everything points in this direction to be able to play for a Big Ten Championship with the hope that leads us to other things, great things down the line.”
Michigan State has been working on this journey for longer than just one year, though.
In the past three seasons, including this one, the Spartans have won 35 games, a Big Ten championship, a Rose Bowl championship and a Cotton Bowl. They’ve played on college football’s biggest stages and established themselves as one of the sport’s dominant forces.
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But they’ve yet to play for a national title, something that irked them about last season, when two losses kept them out of the Playoff. The two losses came against Ohio State and Oregon, the teams that ended up in the national championship game. They were bothered in 2013, too, when they beat Ohio State in this same game, the Big Ten title game in Indy, but weren’t picked as one of the two teams to play for the sport’s final BCS championship.
This year, politics shouldn’t come into it. If the Spartans win, they’ll almost surely be ushered right into the College Football Playoff.
Michigan State has been talking about a national championship for a while now, never shy to speak about its goals. With the goal of reaching the Playoff right in front of it, there’s no reason to stop talking about it now.
“We have asked our guys to reach higher,” Dantonio said. “As simple as that sounds, we needed to do things that we didn't get done last year. We beat the two teams that played in the championship game last year. We've moved forward. But I think there are still things out there for our football team to accomplish. We've got the East Division title, but I think our players want more. They want it all.”
“We know with the Playoff lingering and the opportunity to go there, the motivation is going to be the same as 2013,” linebacker Darien Harris said. “We are going to be just as hungry, just as those seniors were, especially for us guys sitting up here, knowing that each game is coming down to our last game wearing the green and white. So knowing that the Playoff is right there for us obviously gives us motivation, just like it did with the Rose Bowl, and we're really looking forward to the opportunity.”
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Senior quarterback Connor Cook has been the face of this program for these past three seasons, taking over not long after the 2013 campaign began and engineering one big, program-defining win after another while establishing himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the country.
As the program’s all-time leader in wins by a QB, he personifies just how successful this program has been in recent seasons. The bright lights aren’t going to bother the Spartans. They’ve been here before.
“I try and take it day by day, and obviously when you do think back and the long road that we have here, not just me but us together as a whole unit going back from 2013, we've won a lot of games and we've played in a lot of big-time games and we've had a lot of great moments,” Cook said. “But I think just looking back, you're just thankful and just glad to be in the position that we're in, you know, being able to play for another conference title and an opportunity to go to the College Football Playoff.”
The storylines can certainly be about how far Michigan State has come under Dantonio. The Spartans have won 10 or more games in five of the last six seasons after doing it just twice in the 82 years before Dantonio arrived. But make no mistake, Michigan State is here. It is one of college football’s best programs.
Now it’s just looking for the national championship to back that fact up.
A win Saturday, and the Spartans will finally have their shot.
“We built this program to a point where those are our goals now,” Dantonio said. “Initially our goals were to do other things, but this is where we're at now. This is why we've come here. We recruited to these goals, and the fact that we've reached to this point we've reached here, we're at this point, gives credibility to what we talk about here.”