Mon, Jul 28, 2014
CHICAGO -- Michigan State started the 2013 season under the radar. Not so in 2014. The defending Big Ten and Rose Bowl champs will have a large target squarely on their backs. That doesn't mean the Spartans will be doing anything differently this season.
"We've always been about just taking care of ourselves," said coach Mark Dantonio, going into his eighth season as head coach in East Lansing. "We're not looking for any entitlement, anybody to put us up there. We'll get what we earned. Every game will be a challenge, beginning with our first game. Everything that we do will start fresh and have to be earned."
Michigan State, likely a top-10 team when the preseason polls are released, has a big showdown with Oregon -- another likely top-10 team -- in Eugene the second week of the season.
"So we're coming with at least a bona fide big game under our belts as we move forward," Dantonio said. "And we need to gain experience from that game. 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. We have a great home schedule, so we need to continue to win at home, and that's going to be extremely important."
A year ago the quarterback position was a bit of a question mark for the Spartans. Not this year. Connor Cook returns and his experience will be a strength for the Spartans, who relied on a stingy defense in 2013.
"It's very settling," said Dantonio. "When you have a quarterback coming back with experience, with a lot of game experience, when he's been successful, that's going to pay dividends.
"When you look back at our time here, Brian Hoyer's second year in 2008 was successful," Dantonio added. "(Kirk) Cousins, his second and his third year as a starting quarterback, very successful. Connor Cook's first year of starting quarterback, successful. So it gives him a lot of experience, a lot of confidence moving forward. And I think it's a major factor in where we're at as a football team."
Cook will have plenty of help. The Spartans return 99 percent of their rushing offense and approximately 76 percent of their passing offense.
The conference adds two new universities to the mix this season, with both Rutgers and Maryland landing in the East Division. The new division alignments will feature Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers in the East Division and Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin in the West Division.
All schools in the East Division are in the eastern time zone and all schools in the West Division are in the central time zone with the exception of Purdue. Each school will play the other six schools in its division plus two teams from the other division in 2014 and 2015, which will serve as transitional years in which the schools will still be playing eight-game schedules. Beginning in 2016, each school will play three teams from the other division as part of its nine-game schedule. The cross-division games will include one protected matchup on an annual basis between Indiana and Purdue.
The new Big Ten East has coaches saying its among the best divisions in college football, with the likes of Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Maryland and Penn State.
"I think it's one of the toughest divisions in college football," said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. "Once again, you just have to look at the recruiting that takes place at the schools and then the style of defense and offense. It's a rugged conference.
"So all those comments that you said the other coaches were making, I see it. And we're going to do our best to be prepared for it."
The Wildcats have had a busy offseason in the headlines, leading the student-athlete's push to uniionize. But it hasn't been a distraction, according to their coach Pat Fitzgerald.
"We've been through more since probably January than most, and it's been nothing but a positive and nothing more than unifying in our locker room and throughout our entire football program," Fitzgerald said. "So I think we're a leg up from that standpoint. And as I look at where we go in the future, hopefully that will just be something that we can draw upon."
James Franklin, at his first Big Ten Media Day, praised the event. Except for one small problem.
"I don't know if everybody has seen the elevators," Franklin said. "Well, there's one with a Penn State logo on it and there's a logo for each school. Well, the Penn State logo elevator was not in align with my room. And I refuse to ride any other elevator up there, so I had to end up walking up the floors. If there's any way we can coordinate and make sure the elevator's coordinated with the floor I'm on in the future, that would be the only critique I would have. "
Franklin takes over a program still dealing with NCAA sanctions, so he'll have depth issues for a few years.
"We just brought a bunch of freshmen in that have joined the program," Franklin said. "There's an excitement and there's an enthusiasm about the recruiting class and what they're going to bring to our program. And everybody knows we have some challenges when it comes to depth and things like that, so we're going to be relying on those guys."
Franklin said in recruiting he is selling a Penn State education, big-time football in the Big Ten, a supportive fan base... but not early playing time. Not yet.
"Right now we have some challenges and issues that we need to overcome," he said. "So guys are going to have an opportunity to come in and impact the roster quickly. We don't guarantee playing time to anybody. You hear the stories, coaches telling kids that they're going to start as freshmen. We don't do that.
"Guys are going to have to earn it," Franklin continued. "I think our football program is designed to help these kids prepare for life. And they're going to have to earn everything that they're going to do in life. It's the same thing in our program. But we offer that opportunity."