Michigan State has played in two of the three Big Ten title games, is the defending Rose Bowl champion and is enjoying the best run in program history with 42 wins in four years.
Yet the Spartans cling to an underdog mentality, the product of being overshadowed historically by Michigan and Ohio State. Coach Mark Dantonio never wants his team to stop playing with that edge.
“Respectability can fly right out the window on us,” he said. “So it’s what we’ve done lately that you’re basically judged on, and we continue to build our future.”
The task gets tougher this year. The Spartans host the Buckeyes in a November night game that could decide the new East Division. Of more immediate concern is a trip to Oregon the first week of September.
That game could loom large in determining whether the Spartans land a spot in the inaugural, four-team College Football Playoff.
“We’re coming with at least a bona fide big game under our belts as we move forward,” Dantonio said. “One way or the other, win or lose, we need to gain experience from that game and be able to push through and into the conference.”
The Big Ten goes from 12 to 14 teams with the additions of Maryland and Rutgers. Another big story line is the debut of new Penn State coach James Franklin.
Ten things to watch in the Big Ten:
SPARTY PARTY: Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has a track record of rolling out some of the nation’s best units, and don’t expect anything different even though he lost six starters. The offense should keep rolling along, returning 97 percent of its production from a year ago, including QB Connor Cook and RB Jeremy Langford.
BUCKEYE BOUNCEBACK? Ohio State, coming off two straight losses, is a trendy pick to win the East even though Urban Meyer must replace four offensive linemen and QB Braxton Miller is coming off right (throwing) shoulder surgery. The losses of RB Carlos Hyde and backup QB Kenny Guiton shouldn’t be underestimated.
RISING IOWA: The Hawkeyes won four games in 2012, eight in 2013, and more could be in store in 2014. They have experience in QB Jake Rudock, a dependable RB corps and an offensive line featuring NFL prospect Brandon Scherff. Yes, they lost three LBs who combined for almost 1,000 career tackles. But they have the softest schedule in the league, with West opponents Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska coming to Iowa City.
WELCOME ABOARD: Newcomers Maryland and Rutgers will get the full flavor of the Big Ten by playing in the East. With Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, the Terrapins have one of the conference’s most dangerous receiving corps. Rutgers should be competent offensively with new coordinator Ralph Friedgen; the defense could be a problem.
LIONS’ DEN: Penn State’s Franklin has his hands full until NCAA sanctions end in a couple years. His most pressing issue is figuring out how to keep QB Christian Hackenberg upright. The offensive line and receivers are the biggest weaknesses.
MICHIGAN SHUFFLE: Coach Brady Hoke is looking to re-energize his program after a narrow win over Akron and losses in six of the last eight games. He brought in Doug Nussmeier from Alabama to run the offense and gave each of his defensive assistants new positions to coach.
BEST BACKS: Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah (1,690 yards) and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon (1,609) are the nation’s top two returning rushers and both are in the Heisman Trophy conversation.
ON WISCONSIN: A year after setting school records for rushing and total offense, the Badgers started practice having to decide between QBs Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy and figure out how to replace prodigious WR Jared Abbrederis. The Badgers also lost six of the defense’s front seven.
LOOKING FOR MOJO: Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue in the West and Indiana in the East are teams looking to move up. Northwestern missed a bowl for the first time since 2007, Minnesota lost three straight after an 8-2 start and Illinois beat Purdue in a pillow fight. If Indiana’s explosive offense can ever get help from the defense, the Hoosiers might make a bowl.
HOT SEATS: Michigan’s Hoke has the program trending downward since going 11-2 in 2011, his first season. Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999, and fans are antsy after watching Bo Pelini lose no fewer than four games each of his six seasons. Tim Beckman is 6-18 in two years at Illinois, 1-15 in Big Ten games.
Predicted order of finish:
EAST — 1. Michigan State; 2. Ohio State; 3. Michigan; 4. Penn State; 5. Maryland; 6. Indiana; 7. Rutgers
WEST — 1. Iowa; 2. Nebraska; 3. Wisconsin; 4. Northwestern; 5. Minnesota; 6. Illinois; 7. Purdue
Title game winner: Michigan State.