DALLAS – Recruiting rankings often carry the significance of the beetle you probably didn’t realize you stepped on five minutes ago, so it’s timely to point out how one group of experts, or beetles, ranked Michigan State’s recruiting classes in the last six years: 30, 31, 41, 40, 22, 22.
During those six years, the Spartans had five seasons of 11 wins or more, won three Big Ten titles and in the last three years went 36-4 with two major bowl wins, national rankings of Nos. 3, 8 and 3 and now has a berth in the College Football Playoff. This led to such profound national respect that Sports Illustrated was moved to put Michigan State on the cover of its recent issue with the headline, “How Mike Dantonio Rebuilt The Spartans.”
Which would have been great if the coach’s name wasn’t actually Mark.
“Every time something like that happens, there’s a bank that it goes into, and it fuels us,” wide receiver R.J. Shelton said. “It’s the chip-on-the-shoulder bank.”
The question now is not whether Michigan State belongs in college football’s final four but whether the team can punctuate this meteoric ascent under Dantonio with an upset of Alabama.
The Crimson Tide is a 10-point favorite. Nobody has forgotten how to spell Nick Saban’s name.
He is 64 years old and has won four national championships, including three at Alabama (2009-11-12) in the midst of the SEC’s global domination. But the last two national titles were won by Florida State (which beat Auburn) and Ohio State (which eliminated Alabama in the semifinal), somewhat knocking some of the gloss off the SEC in general and Alabama in particular.
Dantonio is a Saban disciple. He has built his program with the same philosophies and mindset as his mentor, other than the fact he can’t just open the front door and have “five-star” recruits flood his living room. He prefers to stay focus on one day, one game, so it follows that he wouldn’t feed into the Big Ten vs. SEC subplot this week.
“This is about the matchup between Alabama and Michigan State, and that really is where it ends,” he said. “We’re not playing the entire SEC, we’re playing Alabama.”
The Spartans rarely overwhelm opponents. Their biggest wins this season came by a spasm — a botched punt and fumble return gift-wrapped at Michigan (27-23), an upset at No. 3 Ohio State on a last-second field goal (17-14), a rally to beat No. 4 Iowa for the Big Ten championship with a 22-play touchdown drive that ended with 27 seconds left.
Saban shouldn’t have to humble his players after late, season-defining losses to Auburn and Ohio State the last two years. But this week he has reminded them that Michigan State is a four-quarter nuisance. The Spartans are physical, can run the ball, ranked fourth in the nation in turnover differential (plus-16) and have an experienced quarterback (Connor Cook) who just won a quarterback award named for Johnny Unitas. (Kids: Google.)
They just win. Michigan State’s only loss came at Nebraska, 39-38, on a controversial touchdown pass with 17 seconds left (TV replays affirmed the Nebraska receiver had stepped out of bounds before the catch but officials ruled he had been forced out by a defender).
“Whether it’s win the game early or win the game in the fourth quarter, that kind of competitive grit is something that you have to have a tremendous respect for,” Saban said.
Cook keyed the winning drive against Iowa, converting a fourth-and-2 from the Hawkeyes’ five-yard-line with an option run. He conceded he initially told coaches during a time-out that he did not want to run the option play.
“Originally I didn’t want to do it. Then I thought, no, I want the ball in my hands,” he said.
Did he hesitate because of a sore shoulder?
“It wasn’t the shoulder. It was failure. I didn’t want to be the guy to not get the first down.”
The Spartans embrace the underdog role. They’re used to it by now. Regardless of recent seasons, the Michigan State brand doesn’t carry the weight it should, even in its home state compared to Michigan. (Nobody spells Jim Harbaugh’s name wrong, either.)
Dantonio is only concerned about what he can control, and that’s not magazine headlines or recruiting rankings.
“First of all, who’s writing them as four-, five-star players?” he said. “No. 2 the difference between a three-star and a five-star is who they are when they come in. It doesn’t speak to their development, and the development is half on them and half on us.”
One more win and it’s safe to assume brand awareness will improve.
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