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Michigan State Is Out to Prove the Big Ten Isn’t Just a ‘Big Two’

Ohio State and Michigan get the headlines, but Sparty says they’re the real story. And don’t forget about Wisconsin, Penn State or Nebraska

Mark Dantonio

The Man of Sparta: Michigan State's Mark Dantonio.

Paul Beaty/AP

Earlier this week, we reveled in the potential that new Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh brings to the Wolverines’ long-standing mega-rivalry with Ohio State, and for good reason: Harbaugh is monstrously good at what he does. He’s a game-changer, a tectonic plate-shifter where the Big Ten Conference is concerned. That’s the hype, anyway. For what it’s worth, we’re buying in.

But who could blame Michigan State fans for being put off by such unabashed Maize-and-Blue love? (And, oh, were they put off.) Who would fault them for being offended on the behalves of the Spartans and their coach, Mark Dantonio, surely one of the finest in the land himself – a winner of 16 of his last 17 games in league play and 26 of 29 overall?

We don’t blame them in the slightest, nor do we expect supporters of Wisconsin, Nebraska and Penn State – the Big Ten’s other relative powers-that-be – let alone those schools’ football programs to kowtow to Michigan, Ohio State or anyone else.

“What’s it matter?” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst says of the nonstop hype surrounding both the defending national champion Buckeyes and the Harbaugh-led Wolverines. “I think it’s a lot of storylines, more than anything.”

And let’s face it; Michigan football is a shadow of its former self. It has dropped six of seven games to “little brother” MSU – those six by an average of just under 17 points – and 10 of 11 to OSU. So much for rivalries. Since Michigan last shared the Big Ten regular-season title in 2004, Ohio State has won a national championship and appeared in two BCS title games. Wisconsin has three Rose Bowl appearances to its credit. Penn State and MSU each has been to a Rose Bowl, with Sparty knocking off Stanford in 2014. Really, the Wolverines have been little more than smudges on the windshield.

If the Big Ten is going to fully reassert itself as one of the best conferences in college football, Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes and Harbaugh’s Wolverines can’t be the only ones raising the bar.

“I think everyone can do that,” Spartans All-American defensive end Shilique Calhoun says. “Eventually we’ve got to play each other, but Michigan State can be better. We can be a better team.”

He echoes Dantonio, who – hear this, College Football Playoff hopefuls – sees last season’s 11-victory campaign, which included a stirring upset of Baylor in the Cotton Bowl, as not good enough.

“We fell short of our goals,” Dantonio says. “So with that being said, we need to continue to try and improve where we’re at, move it forward.”

Spartans quarterback Connor Cook, whom many believe is the league’s – perhaps the nation’s – best NFL prospect at that position despite all the hubbub about Ohio State’s Cardale Jones, calls the Buckeyes the “alpha dogs” of the Big Ten. Which is to say, he tips his cap to all OSU accomplished during its dramatic run to the first title of the playoff era. But ask this guy for his take on Harbaugh-mania, and here’s what you get:

“Nothing.”

Nothing?

“I really have nothing to say about that,” Cook says.

Translation: Why are people around the country frothing at their mouths about Harbaugh when they should be talking about Dantonio and his far superior program?

“People are kind of forgetting about us – the Michigan State Spartans,” Cook says. “That obviously adds fuel to the fire and makes us more motivated when people aren’t talking about us and giving us the respect we deserve.”

When Cook and his fellow Spartans refer to the “sense of entitlement” they don’t have, it’s easy to hear that as a slam on Michigan – the traditional power and in-state rival. Yet it’s also directed at Ohio State, the bluest of the blue-bloods. Everyone out there knows OSU is richest in talent in the Big Ten, but lots of talented players get their facemasks handed to them by tough guys who want it more. Sparty punched out the unbeaten, second-ranked Buckeyes by 10 points two years ago in the Big Ten title game.

“I have a lot of faith in our program,” Calhoun says. “We’ve been underdogs for years, and I kind of like it.”

We shouldn’t forget about Penn State, a program with all the building blocks to return to its Paterno-led heyday and a go-getter coach, James Franklin, who previously did one of the great heavy-lifting jobs in modern history – turning bottom-feeder Vanderbilt into an “it” school in the Southeastern Conference. Franklin has a quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, who will vie with Cook and perhaps OSU’s Jones to be the first passer drafted in 2016.

“I think it’s great,” Franklin says of OSU’s surge to the top and Michigan’s surge of hope. “That’s why you come to the Big Ten. That’s why you come to the Penn State.”

Ask any of the coaches of the other strong programs in this league, and they’ll tell you what OSU accomplished and what Michigan did – simply by hiring Harbaugh – is good for everybody. New Nebraska coach Mike Riley makes this point, though he sees no reason why the Buckeyes or Wolverines should worry him.

“All that stuff is just stuff that’s interesting,” he says, “but it does not affect my day-to-day life at all. My day-to-day life is developing, growing, trying to win games with this team.”

If the Big Ten is going to be the league it aims to be, there’ll be enough hype to go around for more than a couple of teams; maybe even three or four or five. We love Harbaugh’s potential – guilty as charged. But he’s got good company, of that you can be sure.

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