Peruse the preseason predictions for this college football campaign. Most likely you’ll see Ohio State or Michigan picked to win the Big Ten. The league’s marquee programs are receiving the most attention.
The big two have combined to win 77 conference titles: the Wolverines, 42, and the Buckeyes, 35. Minnesota is next with 18.
History may be clouding the minds of some prognosticators, however. Assuming Michigan and OSU will be battling for the top prize implies that Michigan State will step aside.
The Spartans have won two of the last three Big Ten titles, including last season when they reached the College Football Playoff. Michigan last captured the conference in 2004, and Ohio State has just one title in the last six years.
Mark Dantonio enters his 10th season at Michigan State with his team having compiled a 36-5 record during the last three years. The Spartans are 22-2 in conference play during that span.
The Spartans open the 2016 campaign Friday (7 p.m. Eastern, BTN) against visiting Furman, with 28 players having starting experience. Six starters return to a defense that finished No. 11 in the FBS against the run, No. 25 in scoring and No. 26 in total defense.
“These guys that are seniors this year, you’ve got to remember, they have won 54 games since they have come here. They have won over half the games that I’ve won as a head coach,” Dantonio said. “So they have been in a lot of big-time situations. They have been in three Big Ten Championship Games. The rest of our guys have won a lot of football games as well. So there’s a lot of guys coming back with a lot of positive experience. But that needs to transition now to 2016 season.”
Perhaps the biggest concern for Dantonio will be replacing Connor Cook, the school’s all-time winningest quarterback. Fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor gets the first crack.
O’Connor helped the Spartans knock off Ohio State last season with Cook sidelined by injury. He’s waited his turn. Dantonio appreciates that:
“It says a lot about him, first of all, as a person, and his diligence and him looking at the big picture of things. He’s had a great camp. Nobody’s dislodged him. He’s thrown the ball very effectively with knowing where to go with the ball and I think his arm strength is very, very good. He’s got the ability to move and he understands our offense very, very well. Scale of one to 10, probably 10.
“I think everything is in order for him. My, I guess, my message to him is: Be yourself, understand there’s going to be criticism and just if you make a mistake, go at it 100 percent and bounce back from it. It’s tough being a quarterback at any level, especially at this level in football, because you get a lot of criticism, much of it, you know, people that don’t understand the nuances of what he’s going through.”
O’Connor has thrown only 54 passes in his first three years. He looked forward to walking out of the Spartan Stadium tunnel Friday night as the leader of the offense.
“You can finally go out there like it is your team. I have always kind of sat back and let the seniors go out first, let Connor (Cook) go out there first, things like that,” O’Connor said. “Finally, I will have no problem being out there in front with Coach D as we walk out together leading the team and everything like that. It will definitely be a different feel knowing that everybody is behind me and everything like that and it is kind of my team now.”
Classmate Kodi Kieler, a starting offensive lineman, believes O’Connor is the right man for the job.
“He has been doing great back there. He is a great leader. He is a guy we all want to follow behind. Getting the reps and him getting all of the throws has been fun this camp,” Kieler said.
“Tyler is a great guy. He is a great friend first. He is a great teammate. It is kind of cool for him finally to be able to go out there and start as a senior. It is awesome.”
O’Connor will be throwing to a green group of receivers. Senior R.J. Shelton is the only returning player who caught more than two passes a year ago.
Beyond Shelton, it’s a cast of unknowns. Dantonio said true freshman Donnie Corley will play.
Dantonio has built his program on the strength of a physical and stingy defense. MSU relied on it last year when the offense struggled with consistency. The Spartans have led the Big Ten in turnover margin the last three seasons.
Malik McDowell, a junior all-American candidate at nose tackle, can change games. Riley Bullough (MLB), Demetrious Cox (FS), and Vacant Copeland (CB) should be among the top players at their positions in the league.
Outsiders might see this as a rebuilding year in East Lansing with plenty new of faces, but the Spartans aren’t buying that view.
“They are capable of more because they have been in a lot of big situations and played in a lot of big games, but how they are going to play together at this point in time, you know, you never really know. I understand there’s going to be mistakes. We want to make those mistakes going full speed,” Dantonio said.