Michigan State might as well wear camouflage green, considering how hidden its football team’s success is nationally.
The Big Ten East produced one headline after another this offseason, but there wasn’t much buzz coming from a program that is 53-14 over the past five years.
It was Ohio State this, Michigan that. The Buckeyes created new levels of hysteria by winning the inaugural College Football Playoff in January, and the Wolverines electrified their fan base by hiring Jim Harbaugh.
Michigan State remained stealthy, even though two of the most important national developments were quarterback Connor Cook and defensive end Shilique Calhoun’s decisions to return for their senior year.
“Nothing new for us,” Cook said at Big Ten Media Days. “Ever since I’ve been at Michigan State, we’ve been overlooked.”
With everyone expecting to chase Ohio State again in the Big Ten East this year, Michigan State still might be the one team that not only could catch the Buckeyes but wrestle them down.
The division continues to get more interesting, with Harbaugh back at Michigan and Penn State done with the scholarship limits from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Most figure it will be only a matter of time before those two programs regain national prominence.
But like last year, the Ohio State-Michigan State game is the one everyone has circled on the calendar. The Buckeyes trailed last year’s game 21-14 in East Lansing before rolling behind a five-touchdown performance from J.T. Barrett to a 49-37 victory.
“We just came up short,” Cook said. “A lot of that falls on me not having a better fourth quarter.”
This year’s rematch comes Nov. 21 in Columbus.
The Buckeyes are loaded with at least six potential 2016 NFL first-round draft picks — defensive end Joey Bosa, quarterback Cardale Jones, left tackle Taylor Decker, running back Ezekiel Elliott, linebacker Darron Lee and defensive tackle Adolphus Washington.
But Ohio State has won eight national championships without ever repeating. Meyer won national titles at Florida in 2006 and 2008 and did not repeat both times. The Gators lost the 2009 SEC Championship Game to Alabama 32-13, and Meyer soon took a leave of absence after experiencing chest pains and dehydration.
Meyer insists he learned how to take care of himself.
“I’ve been watching it very closely, and others I’m close to have,” he said. “And it’s been great. You know, I’ve learned how to delegate, learned how to shut things off and move forward and not concern yourselves with things you can’t control.”
Meyer says he doesn’t want the Buckeyes focused on repeating but simply making their nine individual position units — running backs, receivers, etc. — better.
“I’d be disappointed to hear our players talk about anything other than Adolphus Washington worrying about the defensive line,” Meyer said. “And Vonn Bell and Tyvis [Powell] worrying about that we have the best safeties in America.”
The quarterback spot should be OK, too. Braxton Miller has shifted to H-back, and Meyer still can choose between Barrett (45 combined touchdowns last year) and Jones, who passed for 860 yards in season-ending victories over Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon.
In the Big Ten media poll, all 40 writers picked Ohio State to win the conference title, and all 40 picked Michigan State to finish second in the East.
“No offense to you guys [in the media], but I’m not really focused on what people say,” Calhoun said before imitating what it would be like if he did. “Ah, they say Ohio State is the preseason No. 1; let’s just kill ourselves. Can we possibly cancel that game [Nov. 21]?”
Nobody’s canceling anything. The Buckeyes are the preseason No. 1 team, and the Spartans are No. 5, with a great chance to climb quickly if they can handle No. 7 Oregon in Week 2. The Ducks handed the Spartans the only other loss in an 11-2 season last year, and Michigan State will try to avenge it in East Lansing.
Now, the Spartans have 17 seniors back on their two-deep roster from a team that finished the 2014 season by rallying from a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit to stun Baylor 42-41 in the Cotton Bowl.
“We’re on the move a little bit, and we’ve got some momentum,” coach Mark Dantonio said to a room full of 60-plus reporters in East Lansing earlier this month. “But the bar is set very high; that’s probably why you’re all here.”