CHICAGO - After going 13-1 last year, winning the Big Ten championship game over Ohio State, beating Michigan for the fifth time in six years and finishing No. 3 in the final AP poll, it would appear Michigan State has arrived.
Almost everyone is saying it. Almost everyone, apparently, except Michigan State.
The underdog role has worked before for the Spartans and they don't seem ready to let go of that us-against-them motivator quite yet.
"Every game will be a challenge. Everything that we do will start fresh and have to be earned," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said on Monday at the Big Ten football media days. "It's what we've done lately that we'll be judged on."
Defensive end Shilique Calhoun, last year's Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, said, "We're still the underdog. We may have a little more respect but we're still an underdog.
"Ohio State is favored to win the Big Ten championship. I consider that as being underdogs. We can use that to our advantage," he said. "I like being the underdog. It gives us a chip on our shoulder.
"There's kind of no pressure on us. People say, 'Aw, you're not going to win.' And when we do, we say, 'We told you so,' "
Quarterback Connor Cook said expectations are high inside and outside the Spartans football program. But he also repeated the underdog theme.
"Last year we got no respect and we continued to win each and every week. We could win the Big Ten championship, we could win a national championship and I still don't feel like we'd get the credit we deserve," he said.
"Personally, I like being the underdog. I like being in that situation. I don't think we talk about it much but I think it motivates us. It motivates me. We focus on the things we can control."
MSU's Cook said he didn't completely understand the rivalry between the Spartans and Michigan until he was at quarterback when MSU beat Ohio State 34-24 in the Big Ten championship game last season.
"I never really knew what it was like for the guys from Michigan to beat Michigan until I played Ohio State. I'm from Ohio and that's a big rivalry for me. When we beat them, I kind of knew how they feel for that rivalry game," Cook said.
He also said Michigan State has a countdown clock of how long it is until the Michigan game the same way Ohio State has one that counts down to its game against the Wolverines.
Michigan defensive end Frank Clark, like the rest of the Wolverines, hasn't been to a Rose Bowl. The last trip to Pasadena for Michigan came after the 2006 season.
Clark says that is a huge motivator for him. And he has a vivid picture of what that trip would look like.
"I want to take us to a place we haven't been. And that's Pasadena," he said Monday.
"All I think about is seeing the sunset (at the Rose Bowl) and having a rose in my mouth at the end of the day. I watch videos all the time of Charles Woodson holding a rose in his mouth with his hands in the air. That's what I want to do. I want to be in Pasadena on the west coast and see the mountains and the sunset."
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said the NCAA is "overmatched" against schools determined to cheat but wouldn't go as far as Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby who last week said cheating pays in the current college sports environment.
When a reporter asked Michigan coach Brady Hoke which game he was most looking forward to, Hoke said, "The first one."
When Michigan State's Dantonio was asked if there was any problem maintaining the intensity in the MSU-Michigan rivalry since his team has dominated recent games between the two, he said, "I continue to live in Michigan. That ought to do it."