CHICAGO -- One of the faces of the Big Ten's hunted team doesn't want to admit that Michigan State has reached that hunted status.
While everyone wants to be a conference's top dog, there's a certain kind of appeal that goes with flying under the radar. "Little Brother" has always been a derogatory term in East Lansing, but it's also one that has provided a legitimate chip on the shoulder of Michigan State. When people at Alabama talk about not being respected, it speaks to the coaching acumen of Nick Saban that he can actually get his players to believe such nonsense. When Michigan State talks about not being respected, it's genuinely been true.
Always searching for more respect, Michigan State suddenly finds itself in a position where it can't ask for much more of it. But junior All-America defensive end Shilique Calhoun would rather not think about it that way.
"We're still the underdog," Calhoun said at Big Ten media days, in a jovial mood that properly reflected the general change in attitude toward Michigan State football. "We may have a little more respect, but we're still the underdog. I think someone just mentioned to me that Ohio State is favored to win the Big Ten championship. I consider that as underdogs. We can use that to our advantage. We want to focus on being the best no matter what."
Call it a search for motivational ploys for a team that usually doesn't have to look too far for them.
Last year, the Spartans beat Ohio State to win the Big Ten and beat Stanford to win the Rose Bowl. They may have qualified for a four-team playoff, had one existed, and by many measures, they had the nation's best defense. The best Michigan State team in a generation turned heads and established a new position for the Spartans in the national hierarchy. Many think they can repeat in 2014, even if the Cleveland Plain-Dealer's unofficial preseason poll of Big Ten media tabbed the Buckeyes.
By the end of last season there were very few areas to criticize Michigan State. The offense was never flashy, but it became more than good enough to help put the Spartans over the top after the defense led the way for so long. Gone are a handful of nationally known stars -- Darqueze Dennard, Denicos Allen, Max Bullough, Isaiah Lewis -- but returning are just as many. Five Spartans made the Sports on Earth Top 100 Players list, including Calhoun, safety Kurtis Drummond and cornerback Trae Waynes on defense and quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford on offense. It's no accident: Even while Michigan State has lagged behind Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State on the recruiting trail, suddenly nobody has a better track record of developing system fits than Spartans coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who miraculously stayed in his assistant role despite the expectation that he'd move on to be a head coach somewhere by now.
With the conversation around Michigan State changing, though, Dantonio is learning to adapt to a new set up circumstances for his team.
"I think the Big Ten Conference, you've always got attention coming your way, and it's what you do with that and how you handle that," Dantonio said. "So what we've tried to talk about, really, is how do we handle success now? We've had success. We've gotten to a point where we've done some special things. What's on our agenda next, how do we handle that success, and that's really going to be one of the biggest things we'll have to deal with this year. I think we're a little bit more of the hunted. That's a good place to be, but it's also a very precarious place to be as well."
It can be so easy to take the foot off the gas, especially when reaching a program's peak. Saban has spoken about this at Alabama, expressing perpetual worries that three national championships in four years created a somewhat spoiled atmosphere in which younger players didn't necessarily understand that that those achievements doesn't just happen, even at a place like Alabama. Even a team of five-star recruits has to actually put in the work and maintain a high level of focus and earned confidence to sustain that success.
Calhoun, for his part, could have turned pro after a breakout redshirt sophomore season in which he finished with 7.5 sacks, constantly hassled opposing quarterbacks and even scored three touchdowns. But he returned because he said he wanted to earn his degree, and he's gone on to happily embrace what's been a tough offseason, by design.
"They want us to go through the toughest hardships so when it comes to game time and it comes to quarters that feel like they last forever, we're used to that," Calhoun said. "That's normal for us. It has been tough, and I feel like it's because they understand how hard we're going to have to work to be better and I'm willing to accept the challenge."
Even with many key pieces gone on that defense -- which finished No. 1 in yards per play allowed, but in Calhoun's opinion has room for improvement -- a combination of All-America candidates returning and breakout candidates waiting in the wings under these coaches makes it hard to doubt Michigan State's ability to, at minimum, continue fielding a top-10 defense. The Spartans won the Rose Bowl without star linebacker Max Bullough. New starting outside linebacker Ed Davis had four sacks and flashed big potential. Calhoun raved about the ability of junior defensive tackle Joel Heath, as well as highly touted true freshman lineman Malik McDowell, a five-star recruit who Calhoun said is a 285-pound "athlete who picks up the game fast."
So it goes now for Michigan State, which -- 7-6 2012 season aside -- has admirably stepped up and carried necessary weight for a Big Ten that's been hurting not only from depth problems, but Michigan's prolonged inconsistent funk, Penn State's crushing sanctions and Nebraska's stint in four-loss purgatory.
"We've had a knack for winning football games these last couple of years, but we've also taken a step back at times," Dantonio said. "And it's important that we understand that we've done that and we've stuck our foot in the ground and driven forward when those things have happened. We found the inches last year, as I said. We have to continue to find those inches and gain even more ground, because, you know, respectability can fly right out the window on us. I understand that. So it's what we've done lately that you're basically judged on, and we continue to build our future as we move forward."
At some point, Michigan will reinvent itself and get back on track. Penn State's sanctions will move into the past, teaming with James Franklin's already torrid recruiting pace. Make all the jokes you want, but it's far from easy to stay near the top of the Big Ten, especially with a couple sleeping giants sitting there waiting to turn things around.
So Michigan State will keep searching for that motivation, knowing that long-term success has never come easy in East Lansing. And in the short-term, maybe motivation isn't too hard to find.
"The thing is, you don't want to lose when it comes to Coach D," Calhoun said with a laugh. "That face he gives you after a loss, you don't want to see that … I've seen it once or twice."
If all goes as planned, he might not see it anymore.