- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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A nationally ranked team opens the season Friday night in prime time in East Lansing. Though the team must break in a new quarterback, its status as a college football power is not much in dispute, as evidenced in part by a big win over Georgia last season.
Yes, that paragraph describes Boise State. The question is, does Michigan State fit every part of that description as well?
The No. 24 Broncos have established themselves among the nation's best by going 73-6 and playing in two BCS games in the past six years. The No. 13 Spartans, despite their richer tradition and greater resources, remain on the cusp of joining the elite. Back-to-back 11-win seasons have helped, but the program never has been to a BCS game and still is seeking its first Rose Bowl berth in 23 years.
"Each year, we're getting closer to our goal," offensive tackle Fou Fonoti told ESPN.com. "With that being said, we've set the bar for ourselves and know where we need to pick up. We're so close, so close to our goal."
If you're a traditionalist, it probably sounds wrong that a Big Ten team must use Boise State as a measuring stick. But Boise head coach Chris Petersen has helped turn the Broncos into a force, especially in openers. In the past three years, his team has beaten Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia away from home in Week 1.
So this is a program accustomed to playing giant-killer on Labor Day weekend. Does Michigan State qualify as a giant? Petersen seems to think so, comparing the Spartans to the Virginia Tech team the Broncos faced two years ago.
"I think you've got a really, really good opponent here, as good as any of those teams that we've played in the past," Petersen told reporters this week.
The subject of if Michigan State has earned national-power status has become a wearying one for coach Mark Dantonio. He led his team to a share of the Big Ten title in 2010, an inaugural Legends Division championship last season, four straight wins over Michigan and a breakthrough victory over Georgia in the Outback Bowl in January. I asked him again this week if his team belonged among the elite.
"I guess we're in the conversation," he said. "But every year's a new year, and we'll have to see how we play and play through this."
There's little debate that Michigan State's defense is already among the nation's best. It's a dominating unit that ranked No. 6 nationally in total defense last year and brings back just about every key piece. Dantonio's lone worry about that side of the ball has been complacency, because he knows the talent is there.
"We have the idea that we can be a lot better than we were, and we're working like it," linebacker Denicos Allen said. "[No. 6] isn't good enough. We feel like we can be the No. 1 defense in the nation if we go out and play like we know how to play."
That defense will be challenged by Boise State's dizzying array of offensive formations and looks. But both teams must answer questions at the quarterback spot, where the Broncos replace record-setting four-year quarterback Kellen Moore and the Spartans ask Andrew Maxwell to succeed three-year starter Kirk Cousins.
Powerhouses plug in new quarterbacks and move on. They also win their openers at home. Michigan State wants to get to the level Boise State has achieved and can move a big step closer on Friday night with the country watching. If the Spartans beat the giant-killers, they might be giants.
"For us to get that win would be huge for us," Allen said. "It would be a huge confidence booster for us for the season, and we could carry that and go a long way with it.
"We're not far at all [from being a national power]. It's right at our fingertips. We've just got to come out this year and show we deserve to be there. "