The Best May Still Be to Come For Michigan State Football

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Michigan State football players received their 2015 Cotton Bowl rings this week, commemorating both the Spartans’ come-from-behind win over Baylor in January, as well as their sixth win in the last seven years over in-state rival Michigan.

Now, Michigan elitists might grumble about Ohio State being the Wolverines’ true rival — and sure enough, The Game is arguably the most heated series in college football and has had some rather classic installments even while Michigan has been down. Perhaps those to dismiss Michigan State football as “little brother” are onto something: the Spartans’ recent dominance over their in-state counterparts doesn’t suggest true rivalry, with five of Sparty’s six wins since 2008 coming by double digits.

Bill Bender of Sporting News wrote a great feature over the spring examining how “little brother” Michigan State grew up and started bullying big brother, but more importantly, how the Spartans grew into something even greater.

Michigan State football isn’t just out of Michigan’s shadow: the Spartans are casting a shadow of their own.

Ohio State is a runaway choice for preseason No. 1, and deservedly so after the Buckeyes won the inaugural College Football Playoff. But it wasn’t long ago that Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State bunch left Ohio State’s Urban Meyer sadly munching on some cheap pizza after the Big Ten Championship.

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The hardware Spartan players received last spring commemorating both that win over Ohio State, and their subsequent defeat of Stanford, are tangible reminders of just how far Michigan State football has come in recent years.

Spartans hands are now for holding championship rings, not self-inflicting pain.

Michigan State’s 2013 Big Ten Championship defeat of Ohio State was Urban Meyer’s first loss as Buckeyes head coach. The Rose Bowl win over Stanford ended the Pac-12’s decade-long stranglehold over the Big Ten in the Granddaddy of ‘Em All. Most impressively, Michigan State beat both teams at their own games, scoring with Meyer’s potent offense and stifling Stanford’s ground-and-pound approach.

With apologies to #FSUTwitter, I don’t know any team was playing as well to close the 2013 campaign as Michigan State. Seminoles-Spartans would have been a helluva game, at least.

Last season was not quite as successful: The Spartans were thoroughly dominated in the second half of a Week 2 road loss at Oregon, and Ohio State exacted revenge on Michigan State’s home field. But when you’re step back results in 11 wins, including a Cotton Bowl victory, you’ve officially arrived among the nation’s elite.

The summer months are filled with speculation, namely who is poised to pursue a championship. As mentioned, Ohio State is an obvious choice. The SEC’s various teams are always in that conversation, with Alabama, Auburn and Georgia as this year’s forerunners. TCU and Baylor, the team Michigan State rallied to beat in the Cotton Bowl, are also in the mix.

Michigan State isn’t necessarily overlooked — the Spartans are almost universal preseason Top 10 selections — but title talk for Dantonio and Company is limited. Maybe it’s because Michigan State football parted with Pat Narduzzi, arguably the best defensive coordinator in the nation, who took the head coaching job at Pittsburgh.

The Spartans also lose workhorse running back Jeremy Langford and stud defensive back Trae Waynes. Perhaps Michigan State is simply playing little brother to a new big sibling in Ohio State. The road to the Playoff goes through the Big Ten East, after all.

But looking at the personnel Dantonio returns, starting with defensive end Shilique Calhoun on one end and quarterback Connor Cook on the other, it’s

A return date with Oregon looms large in September. Last year’s runner-up will be breaking in a new quarterback, and no one hurt the Spartans quite like departed Heisman winner Marcus Mariota in the 2014 loss at Autzen Stadium. A Spartans win over the Ducks should have the nation salivating over a Nov. 21 trip to Columbus — with all due respect to Air Force, Central Michigan, Purdue, Rutgers, Nebraska and, yes, Michigan — because Spartans-Buckeyes should again determine the Big Ten.

Michigan State players may run out of digits for their jewelry if the Spartans reach their peak potential in 2015.