Column: Michigan State must maneuver a challenging schedule to reach the top

Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio embraces quarterback Connor Cook after the Spartans defeated Stanford to win the Rose Bowl game last season.

Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio embraces quarterback Connor Cook after the Spartans defeated Stanford to win the Rose Bowl game last season.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Times’ annual college football countdown continues its march toward No. 1 with our pick for No. 5.

Michigan State is a lock for the College Football Playoff if — and it’s a big IF — it negotiates a schedule that includes last season’s championship finalists, Oregon and Ohio State.

Those were the only teams to defeat Michigan State last season.

Michigan State checks off all the boxes of a title contender, lacking (so far) the kind of summer drama that gets you on TMZ.

The Spartans have a championship-tough schedule, a returning quarterback in Connor Cook, and a no-nonsense coach in Mark Dantonio. They are eight players deep down an excellent offensive line.


A-list defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has moved on to become the head coach at Pittsburgh, but he left behind a lot of the players who actually make the tackles.

The defensive front is deep and talented, led by superstar end Shilique Calhoun, who opted to forgo the NFL until next season. The secondary needs some renovation and the offense loses stars Tony Lippett and 1,500-yard tailback Jeremy Langford. But, like a trout farm, Michigan State simply restocks the pond.

Michigan State is coming off a season in which it defeated Baylor in a bowl game and then watched reporters flock to Ann Arbor to cover rival Michigan’s hiring of Jim Harbaugh.

This Big Ten Conference program has stewed for years in the shadow of Ohio State and Michigan, and it finds itself again squished on both sides by the same glory hounds.

Sharing the Big Ten East division with Ohio State and Michigan is like sharing a makeup room with two of the Kardashians.

Michigan State fought for years to earn respect and, only two seasons ago, completed the quintessential Big Ten dream of winning the Rose Bowl. The Spartans seemed on a fast track to challenge for a national title, only to watch division-rival Ohio State come from nowhere last season to win it all.

And so Dantonio, a man who does not suffer fools gladly, stood up at Big Ten media day and fielded questions about the pride Ohio State brought to the conference.

“Good football team, good players, well coached, a lot of confidence, got hot,” Dantonio said of the Buckeyes. “You know the rest. But I thought it was an outstanding season for them.”

Michigan State’s upcoming season includes plenty of challenges. Oregon comes to East Lansing, Mich., on Sept. 12 in an early-season epic. Michigan State has to play at Michigan (Oct. 17), at Nebraska (Nov. 7) and at Ohio State (Nov. 21), but it won’t be going in scared.

Cook is a third-year starter who has winner stamped on his forehead. He will be asked to proficiently lead a team that relies on a smash-mouth style in an age of high-fangled formations and hummingbird tempos.

Michigan State won’t sneak up on anybody because the Spartans are already in the room. You just didn’t hear them knocking.

“We’re going to come to work every day,” Dantonio said. “That’s all I can tell you. We’re not going to take things for granted. We’re going to try and stay grounded in who we are and what we do, and understand the game is played on the field.

“I think that’s the point that a lot of the people in the press miss sometimes. The game is played on the field.”

Top 25 so far: 25. Michigan; 24. Nebraska; 23. Utah; 22. Missouri; 21. Arkansas; 20. Tennessee. 19. Boise State; 18. Oklahoma; 17. Notre Dame; 16. Wisconsin; 15. Georgia Tech; 14. UCLA; 13. Arizona; 12. Florida State; 11. Arizona State; 10. Georgia; 9. USC.; 8. Auburn; 7. Clemson; 6. Baylor.