Chip remains firmly planted on Spartans' shoulders

Connor Cook finds inspiration off the field

Michigan State QB Conner Cook discusses the bracelet he wears every day as inspiration for Ryan Smigiel, who's battling cancer.

CHICAGO -- At most conference media days, a team that has finished in the top five and has won a major bowl game the past two years would serve as the main attraction. Yet Michigan State was the decided undercard on Day 1 of Big Ten media days.

That's because the 800-pound behemoth known as defending national champion Ohio State swaggered into the same interview rooms on Thursday. The Buckeyes couldn't even wait until the first coach's media conference to send everyone in a frenzy; news broke that four of their players would be suspended for the Virginia Tech game about an hour before the Spartans' Mark Dantonio took the podium. Reporters scrambled for breathing room when Urban Meyer held court at a round table.

At least Michigan and Jim Harbaugh aren't grabbing the spotlight here until Friday. Still, the Spartans found themselves in the familiar position of playing second fiddle despite their recent maestro performances.

"Being at Michigan State, we're always overlooked," center Jack Allen said. "So it's normal."

Dantonio's team went 11-2 last year, with its only losses coming to the two teams that played in the national title game, Ohio State and Oregon. It beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl, adding that crown to its Rose Bowl championship from the 2014 season.

But the Buckeyes won the Big Ten and the national title, are ranked No. 1 in every preseason poll and, in a recent Cleveland.com survey of league reporters, were picked to repeat as Big Ten champs on all 40 ballots. Michigan State is stuck in the same division as perhaps the most loaded team in the country.

"I wouldn't pick us to win the division, either," Dantonio said. "I'd pick the national champs. Wouldn't you?"

The lack of respect for Dantonio's program is relative. Michigan State checked in at No. 6 in the first coaches poll that was released on Thursday. People understand how good the Spartans are, even if the perception of the gulf between them and the Buckeyes is likely larger than reality.

Here's the thing, though: This team loves to play the underdog card. If Ohio State -- or Harbaugh -- weren't casting the shadow, Michigan State would search out some shade to sit in.

This is a team that wore workout shirts with an actual chip on the shoulders this summer. Designed by strength coach Ken Mannie, the shirts had a poker chip with a Spartan logo affixed to the upper arm as a not-too-subtle reminder. Any player who failed to wear his shirt to conditioning drills landed in Mannie's dog house.

"The Big Ten Conference has always been about Ohio State and Michigan," Allen said. "Nobody's ever thought of Michigan State like what's done for Michigan or Ohio State. We're the underdogs, and that's what it is."

There's some truth to that. The Spartans have dominated their state of late, beating Michigan six of the past seven years. But they will always be compared to the Maize and Blue, and probably always asked about their rivals. A reporter asked defensive end Shilique Calhoun what he thought about the "Harbaugh-mania" that defined most of the offseason in the mitten state.

"No comment?" Calhoun replied, smiling. "I'll leave it at that."

Still, the underdog label doesn't quite fit, certainly not for a team with four potential All-Americans (Allen, Calhoun, quarterback Connor Cook and offensive tackle Jack Conklin) and that could be favored in every game this season except its trip to Ohio State -- yes, even against Oregon in Week 2, since the game is in East Lansing.

After a while, you wonder if Michigan State will have to start manufacturing slights in order to play with the edge that has made it so successful. After all, this program has won its past four bowl games, against Georgia, TCU, Stanford and Baylor. When does "nobody believed in us" turn into "we expected to do that"?

"We're not built like that," Dantonio said. "From the beginning we've climbed the ladder. Hopefully, we understand that we've got to scrap to get up to the top."

Dantonio's slogan this year is "Reach Higher," and after the Rose and Cotton bowls, the only possible step up is making the playoff. The Spartans are a legitimate contender.

"We feel like no matter who it is, if it's Ohio State or Alabama or Auburn or Georgia or whoever, we're going to be right there," Cook said. "We deserve to be in the talk as well."

They are in the conversation, even if maybe others get talked about first and a little louder. Deep down, Michigan State likes it that way.