Despite elite play, Michigan State football still has ‘underdog’ status


Media, along with opposing coaches, players and fans are providing Michigan State football just what the team needs to stay hungry – disrespect.

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Outside sources continue to underrate Michigan State despite the program’s surge since Mark Dantonio became the program’s head coach in 2007.

Michigan football has formerly been recognized as the state’s elite team, excelling in the Big Ten and the nation with consistent success for decades. Michigan State football has prospered in the last eight years as the dark horse of the Big Ten and has taken control of its rivalry with the Wolverines, but the program’s years of playing in the shadows of its in-state nemesis have made conversion to Spartan football gradual.

“No matter how hard the Spartans try, they’re always going to be considered the second-best team in Michigan,” ESPN‘s Mark Schlabach said in 2012. Though that common view is slowly changing, Michigan State is still underestimated in the Big Ten and the nation, as many choose to ignore the program’s progress.

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Spartan culture has cultivated an underdog mindset – winning with toughness over talent. “Our guys have always tried to play with a chip on their shoulder,” Dantonio said. “Our feeling is that’s sort of the way we’ve been built here.”

Recruits arriving in East Lansing have tended to be relatively less celebrated, as Dantonio has never had a recruiting class ranked in the top 20. Spartan players’ success has required maturity and drive – such as that of former two-star recruits Le’Veon Bell and Darqueze Dennard.

Still, opposing coaches seem to overlook what lesser known players have accomplished as Spartans. Athlon Sports quoted an opposing Big Ten assistant coach pointing out that the upcoming Michigan State team doesn’t have as much talent as other teams.

More victories, prominence and higher-ranked recruits may cause some Michigan State supporters to worry that the team might lose that chip on their shoulder. But there is no indication of that happening as Spartan players pledge to uphold their underdog hunger.

“No one will care what our ranking was once we get to college,” 2016 quarterback commit Messiah deWeaver said.

Nov 8, 2014; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio leads his team to the field prior to a game against Ohio State at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

For traditionalists to witness the rise of a new college football dynasty less than a couple hours from Ann Arbor, it’s hard for them believe, and those doubters are doing their part in making sure the “Spartans Dawgs” don’t get too comfortable – withholding deserved credit, minimizing Dantonio’s 75-31 record and forgetting a couple Big Ten Championships and a Rose Bowl.

The Spartan program has grown accustomed to belittlement throughout its rise.

After Michigan defeated Michigan State in 2007, Wolverine running back Mike Hart referred to the Spartans as “little brother.”

Michigan State responded.

“If they want to mock us all they want to mock us, I’m telling ’em, it’s not over. It’s not over and it’ll never be over here. It’s just starting,” Dantonio said in a legendary interview. “Let’s just remember, pride comes before the fall.”

Since then, Michigan State has beaten Michigan in six of the last seven meetings.

Dantonio has identified the disrespect, used it as inspiration for his players, and established a new Spartan philosophy throughout his tenure. After Michigan State’s 2008 defeat of Michigan, Dantonio said, “We took a step forward in the eyes of the people in Michigan and toward changing the culture in this state.”

He reminded people of that in 2011. “Times have changed,” Dantonio said after the team recorded another defeat.

”It’s not over and it’ll never be over here. It’s just starting” – Mark Dantonio

After being manhandled by Michigan State in their 29-6 loss in 2013, Michigan head coach, at the time, Brady Hoke denied an apparent widening disparity between the two teams. “I don’t think there is a gap, I think they played awfully well,” Hoke said. “They executed awfully well. I don’t think we did.”

During the 2013 season, the AP poll and USA Today Coaches Poll kept a one-loss Michigan State team behind two-loss teams through most the season. The eventual Big Ten and Rose Bowl champion Spartans didn’t enter the top 10 until week 15.

Before last season’s 35-11 thrashing of Michigan, Spartan players witnessed a group of Wolverine players drive a stake in Spartans’ home turf. Late in the game, already leading by a few scores and expected to run conservative playcalling, Dantonio stayed aggressive and directed the offense to drive the ball down and see Jeremy Langford score his third touchdown of the game with 28 seconds left.

“I just felt like we needed to make a statement at that point,” Dantonio said. “To throw a stake down in our backyard out here and coming out there like they are all that, it got shoved at them the last minute and a half.”

The disrespect continues.

Last month ESPN writers placed Michigan State No. 18 in their future power rankings, three spots behind Michigan.

A wide-ranging notion suggests that Michigan State cannot reclaim a Big Ten title because they’re in the same division as Ohio State, who many deem as the Spartans’ ultimate dead-end. Michigan State is the only Big Ten team to beat the Urban Meyer-led Ohio State team in the last three seasons, but a common assumption is that the Spartans can’t beat them again.

Many skeptics are losing money on the Spartans. Michigan State has won its last five postseason games, and has not been favored in a single one. Since 2011, Michigan State is 34-20 overall against the betting spread. Dantonio is 7-0-1 against the spread in games facing Michigan. Michigan State will enter the upcoming season in the Top 10 and favored over Michigan by 4.5 after beating the Wolverines 29-6 and 35-11 the last two seasons, respectively.

Jan 1, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Michigan State Spartans quarterback Connor Cook (18) holds up the Cotton Bowl trophy after the game against the Michigan State Spartans in the 2015 Cotton Bowl Classic at AT&T Stadium. Michigan State beat Baylor 42-41. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Several doubt Michigan State’s future because of the quarterback position and the upcoming graduation of Connor Cook.

“There’s a decent chance Michigan State could be the odd team out with Michigan, Ohio State and, to a lesser extent, Penn State surging in the division,” an ESPN panel wrote. “One position – quarterback – could determine whether the Spartans fade in the coming seasons.”

Enormous attention to new Michigan Head Coach Jim Harbaugh’s arrival has overwhelmed the attention to MSU’s upcoming season, and reporters are already spinning with expectations.

“In Years 2 and 3 they should be competing for a league title,” ESPN writer Adam Rittenberg said regarding Harbaugh and Michigan. “I think that would be disappointing if they weren’t because of the staff and their ability to recruit.”

Jan 1, 2014; Pasadena, CA, USA; Michigan State Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio holds up the trophy after Michigan State Spartans beat the Stanford Cardinal 24-20 at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the football program under Dantonio is finishing in the top 5, winning BCS Bowls and leading players to the NFL, one might expect a growing belief that Dantonio’s predictions are unfolding — but that hasn’t been the case.

The media ranks Michigan higher in power rankings, leaves East Lansing in swarms to report on their hero Harbaugh, predicts a Michigan State collapse, raises suspicion of Michigan State based on supposed lack of talent and presumes that being in the Buckeyes’ division immediately kills their chances.

Before seeing what this top-10 Michigan State team does this season, which new Spartans step up and if the Spartan ‘D’ even skips a beat, the media is instead making assumptions that Michigan will beat them and every other Big Ten team in a couple years.

Michigan State football has demonstrated it can pile up wins with consistent coaching strategy, and it shows no signs of fading. Dantonio is committed to stay, stating that East Lansing is a destination and not a stopping point. The program’s team-first mentality is attracting more interest from recruits than ever before at MSU.

‘Spartan Dawgs’ continue to be overlooked underdogs pursuing championships within their reach.

“It hasn’t been done for a long, long time,” Dantonio said of a national title at MSU. “But there are a lot of things that haven’t been done for a long, long time, since the ’60s, that we’re doing.”

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