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Michigan State thrives without scoring big in recruiting

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Can Michigan State upset Alabama in Cotton Bowl? (2:08)

Kirk Herbstreit looks ahead to the Cotton Bowl matchup between Michigan State and Alabama and breaks down the keys for victory. (2:08)

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Nothing excites college football fans quite like recruiting stars.

Few coaches have recruited as many players decorated with those stars as Alabama's Nick Saban. The running joke is that Saban doesn't recruit. He selects.

But he also has a favorite saying that every player who has ever come through the doors at Alabama on his watch can recite in their sleep.

"Leave that four-star and five-star stuff in high school," said Alabama safety Eddie Jackson, doing his best Saban impersonation. "This isn't high school. The only thing that matters now is how you grow as a player and as a man."

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio couldn't say it any better himself. He has built a top-10 program void of any top-10 recruiting classes. In fact, the Spartans haven't finished with a top-25 recruiting class any of the past four years, according to ESPN's rankings.

And, yet, they've won 11 or more games five of the past six seasons, Big Ten championships two of the past three seasons and are 7-1 in their past eight games against top-10 opponents.

"Why have we had success?" Dantonio said. "I think we have great chemistry and energy, but I think we have great players here, too. Every time I turn on the TV or the app, you see Kirk Cousins doing something. You see Jeremy Langford doing something. There are a lot of our guys playing at a very high level in the NFL, and that speaks volumes in terms of their development here, but also how they've been able to compete in the Big Ten Conference and across the nation. We've developed a brand."

Saban told ESPN.com last week he's not sure anybody in the country has done a better job of evaluating and developing players than Dantonio, who has won 36 of his last 40 games.

"It's phenomenal what Mark has done there and the way his players just get better and better," Saban said.

Michigan State will take the field Thursday night in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic with seven of its 22 starters who were four-star prospects coming out of high school. The Spartans didn't have any five-star prospects. That compares to 19 of 22 starters for Alabama who were at least four-star prospects, which includes three five-star prospects.

Four of the Spartans' 22 starters were ranked in the ESPN 300 as high school prospects. The Crimson Tide will have five ESPN 300 prospects just in their front seven on defense. Overall,16 of their 22 starters were ESPN 300 recruits

"People develop. You come here as teenager and leave here as a man," Dantonio said. "Between 18 and 22, there is a vast change in ability. If you work with people and they have the right attitude, they can grow as people and football players."

The Spartans have made a living of finding two- and three-star prospects and turning them into five-star players by the time they're done in East Lansing. The list goes on and on: Le'Veon Bell, Darqueze Dennard, Trae Waynes, Connor Cook, Jack Conklin and Shilique Calhoun, to name a few.

"We pride ourselves on that here at Michigan State," said Conklin, who has gone from being a walk-on to a first-team All-American and potential first-round NFL draft pick. "We're the rag-tag crew, the overlooked guys who are somehow winning. But, really, we believe we're just as good as everybody else, player-wise and talent-wise, and it's fun showing everybody what they missed out on. The most fun is winning."

The Spartans' recent success has put them in a position to attract more highly recruited players, even though Dantonio and his staff are never going to deviate from their system, which is heavy on seeing prospects in person and meeting with them. Last year, they beat Ohio State for freshman running back LJ Scott, and sophomore defensive tackle Malik McDowell was one of the most coveted defenders in the country two years ago.

The Spartans are currently 19th in ESPN's 2016 recruiting rankings, although Ohio State is No. 2 and Michigan No. 5.

"We grade our recruiting classes top 15 every year ... if we were asked," cracked Michigan State co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, who has been with Dantonio dating back to 2004 at Cincinnati. "Coach Dantonio trusts himself and trusts us in terms of evaluating who we think is going to become, in the long run, the best player for us and the best player, period, and not based on who's the best high school junior."

Former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, now the Pittsburgh head coach, discovered Cook when Narduzzi was visiting Cook's high school in Ohio (Walsh Jesuit) while recruiting another player that wound up going to Wisconsin.

Cook was a skinny sophomore at the time. Narduzzi watched him throw in the school gym and couldn't wait to get back to East Lansing to tell Dantonio about his discovery. Even when Cook didn't have a very good junior season in high school, the Spartans continued to send him handwritten letters. His other choices were Miami (Ohio) and Akron.

"If they offer a quarterback, they want you to come to camp," Cook said. "I went on junior day and Narduzzi was so fired up that he couldn't even wait for my dad to come back from the bathroom to say that they had offered me a scholarship. My mom and I look at each other and are like, 'Are you serious?' The Michigan State coaches know how to evaluate talent."

There's also an apprenticeship of sorts within the program that has been equally valuable.

"We invest in people," Dantonio said. "It's your program that matters. It's not the people who come in. It's how you run your program, how you invest in them and how they develop. Our seniors have always led the way. It's one of the reasons we've had success. Our seniors play their best football their senior year."

Conklin remembers being mentored by fellow offensive linemen Blake Treadwell and Fou Fonoti when he was younger, and he has made sure to pay it forward.

"The biggest thing I've seen at Michigan State is the older guys and how much they help in bringing the younger guys along," Conklin said. "I remember being a freshman and Blake and Fou would take me aside after practice and go over things, even if I didn't want to, and make me work on things, footwork and understanding the playbook. That's what helped me become the player I am. That's the legacy that's been built at Michigan State."

It's a legacy Dantonio sells proudly on the recruiting trail despite the obsession with stars and where a kid is ranked as a 16- or 17-year-old. He knows the landscape has changed with Jim Harbaugh now at Michigan and Urban Meyer shifting his recruiting machine at Ohio State into overdrive.

The only thing changing at Michigan State is the number of banners the Spartans are hanging in their football complex.

"We're in great position from a recruiting perspective," Dantonio said. "Look around. Why wouldn't you want to come to Michigan State, the center stage of college football? And we've been in that conversation for the last three years.

"We've grown as a program. The key is to stay there."