CHICAGO—Connor Cook is tired of finishing second to a Buckeye.
After two straight seasons of being named second-team All-Big Ten behind an Ohio State quarterback (Braxton Miller in 2013 and J.T. Barrett in ’14), Cook, Michigan State’s senior quarterback, is ready to move up in the world. “Being on that first-team All-Big Ten list would be great,” Cook said at his conference’s media day on Thursday. “And I believe I should be on that.”
“I believe so,” Cook said when asked if he’s the league’s premier passer. “Yes.”
Spartans senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun did earn first-team All-Big Ten recognition last year, but he lost to Ohio State’s Joey Bosa in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Entering 2015 Calhoun finished second to Bosa in a media poll of the Big Ten’s best defensive player. “Of course I want to be the best,” Calhoun said. “[Bosa has] done a great job the past couple of years, but at the end of the day, I want to be the best.”
Is Calhoun the Big Ten’s top lineman? He certainly thinks so.
“I do believe I am the best,” Calhoun said. “Yes.”
Last November, with first place in the Big Ten’s East Division on the line, Ohio State topped Michigan State 49-37 to clear the Buckeyes’ path to the Big Ten championship game and, eventually, the national title. The Spartans settled for division runner-up status and a thrilling 20-point comeback in the Cotton Bowl. Fresh off their title, Ohio State ranks No. 1 in the preseason Coaches’ Poll and stands as a heavy Big Ten favorite. Michigan State, which ranks No. 6 in the same poll, appears to be the conference's second-best squad.
As Ohio State’s quarterback competition and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh have dominated the off-season conversation, the Spartans—fresh off back-to-back top-five finishes in the national rankings—have flown somewhat under the radar. Not that they’re particularly bothered by it. “Since I’ve been there people have always talked about Michigan, they’ve always talked about Ohio State, so it’s nothing new for me,” Cook said.
Echoed center Jack Allen: “Since I’ve been at MSU, even before that, we’ve always been overlooked. We’re always viewed as the underdogs, and that’s fine.”
The returns of Cook and Calhoun—who both bypassed the NFL draft in favor of preparing for one final season in East Lansing—mean even if the Spartans self-identify as underdogs, they’ll be the favorites in almost every game they play this fall. Michigan State’s defense returns eight starters (though not its coordinator, with Pat Narduzzi now the head coach at Pittsburgh) from a unit that finished eighth in the FBS in yards allowed per game (315.8). Coach Mark Dantonio raves about his veteran offensive line, while Cook praises the receiving corps.
Then there’s Cook himself, the third-year starter who as a sophomore led the Spartans to their first Rose Bowl since 1987 and as a junior improved his numbers across the board. In 2014 Cook led the conference in passing yards (3,214) and trailed only Barrett in touchdowns, yards per attempt and quarterback rating.
The 2015 campaign could see Cook evolve from one of the best players in his conference to one of the best in the nation. Of the eight Division I quarterbacks who averaged more yards per attempt than Cook in '14, only two (Barrett and Western Michigan’s Zach Terrell) return to campus. Cook even sits on the short list of preseason Heisman Trophy candidates. “I think he's come back with the idea that there are things left to prove,” Dantonio said. “And he's going to continue to take his game to a higher level. And that's exciting.”
Michigan State’s schedule offers the chance to avenge both of last year’s losses. It will host Oregon on Sept. 12 and visit Ohio State on Nov. 26. The latter matchup could again decide the Big Ten East and further a budding rivalry between the two divisional powers. And while the Spartans have experience in Buckeye-slaying—two seasons ago Michigan State upset Ohio State 34-24 in the Big Ten title game—last year’s Buckeyes exacted revenge and accomplished what this group of Spartans desperately hope to: They reached and won the national title.
For Cook, Calhoun and Co., that’s the standard in 2015. After cementing their status as a Big Ten power, they’re ready to prove they’re no longer the second best. “As well as we did last year, we didn’t reach our goal,” Calhoun said. “As a collegiate team, every team wants to play in the national championship. You can go to any program, you can go to a D-III school, they’ll say the same thing: I want to play in the national championship."