Overachieving Spartans eye a Big Ten title

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

At first, it sounds like Mark Dantonio is putting down his Michigan State team, which will earn the school's first January bowl berth since 2000 -- and possibly much more.

"We have a group of overachievers," Dantonio told ESPN.com on Sunday night.

Being called an overachiever isn't a slight to Javon Ringer, Otis Wiley or the rest of the Spartans. Listen to how Dantonio describes Ohio State's 2002 national championship team, for whom he served as defensive coordinator.

"We overachieved," Dantonio said. "Any great team, any team that's winning right now, has got a bunch of overachievers, regardless of the talent level. There's so much parity in college football, there's so many things that can pop up and go wrong throughout the season, that you better be at your best and you better be a little bit past your best."

Michigan State certainly has exceeded the threshold many set for it before the season. Sure, the Spartans were the chic pick to be the Big Ten's surprise team in 2008. Some labeled them this year's Illinois, which came out of nowhere to reach the Rose Bowl last fall.

Still, given the program's knack for fast starts and faster collapses, for inflating and deflating expectations in a matter of days or weeks, it was tough to fully buy into the Spartans. Yet here they are, ranked No. 15 nationally and heading to No. 8 Penn State on Saturday to play for a share of the Big Ten championship (ABC, 3:30 p.m.).

A Michigan State win, combined with an Ohio State loss would send the Spartans to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988. The Spartans haven't claimed a share of the league title since 1990.

"To do something that hasn't been done in 18 years makes it very, very special, not only to Michigan State and its fans, but to the players that are playing," Dantonio said. "Penn State's an outstanding football team, great talent, they're extremely well coached. But we're coming to play."

When Dantonio took over at Michigan State, he talked about regaining the respect of Spartans fans, who had been burned repeatedly during the John L. Smith era. Last year's bowl breakthrough helped, and a 9-2 start that includes a win against archrival Michigan has sold most of Spartan Nation on the direction of the program.

The next step is earning national respect. Michigan State has four victories against teams with winning records, but none against ranked opponents.

Given a big-stage opportunity to step up against Ohio State, the Spartans failed miserably, falling 45-7 on their home field Oct. 18. Another chance arrives Saturday against the heavily favored Nittany Lions.

"That's a continuous thing that you fight, that respect factor," Dantonio said. "This is a world of instant gratification. People want it and want it now. We are truly a work in progress, but we come to play. And as long as you come to play and we play with confidence and we know what we're doing on that end, we'll always have a chance."

Michigan State needs help to get to the Rose Bowl, but a win Saturday could get the Spartans into the BCS mix either way.

"If we're a 10-2 football team, we warrant serious consideration to be in a BCS game, depending on what happens in some of the other conferences down toward the end," Dantonio said. "We're certainly not going to replace a 1-loss team, but if there are other 10-2 teams being considered, with the schedule that we play, which I believe is ranked 13th in the nation prior to this season, Michigan State warrants serious consideration."

Back on media day in East Lansing, Dantonio talked about his grading system for players, which includes categories for Big Ten championship performance, bowl-game performance, winning performance, average performance and losing performance.

Looking at his roster, he said Michigan State had plenty of players "capable of playing at the bowl-game performance level." But in the next breath, he reiterated that Big Ten championships would always be part of the discussion.

So the title talk continued and heated up after Michigan State followed the Ohio State disaster with wins against Michigan and Wisconsin. Ohio State's loss to Penn State cracked open the door.

"All of a sudden it became, 'Hey, we've only got one [conference] loss. Why not us?'" Dantonio said.

Dantonio attributes the upgrade this season to improved depth and a small but productive senior class. Michigan State boasts only 16 seniors, including non-scholarship players, but many of them, including Ringer, Wiley, defensive end Brandon Long and versatile linebacker Ryan Allison, saved their best seasons for last.

Ringer ranks third nationally in rushing average (140.7 ypg) and first in rushing touchdowns (20). Wiley comes in second in the Big Ten in both interceptions (4) and passes defended (11).

Not bad for a bunch of overachievers.

"Regardless of our talent level, whatever that may be," Dantonio said, "if we overachieve, we'll always be satisfied."