EAST LANSING, Mich. – Mark Dantonio is smart enough to know that his Michigan State Spartans have zero chance of earning a spot in the BCS title game. This is true even if they beat current No. 2 Ohio State and Duke somehow upsets No. 1 Florida State.
The winner of the SEC – either No. 3 Auburn or No. 5 Missouri – would get one bid. The other would probably go to No. 4 Alabama, which is idle. Maybe that's fair, maybe it isn't, but that's the way it is. Dantonio can't possibly think poll voters would jump No. 10 MSU over half a dozen teams, including the two-time defending champion Crimson Tide, whose only blemish was decided on a final second 109-yard field goal return.
Still, there Dantonio was Tuesday, standing in front of the media and broaching the subject himself, just laying it out there for discussion.
"Why not us?" he said.
For the national title?
"Yeah, why not us?" he repeated.
Don't bother debating him because swaying some poll voter somewhere with such a hypothetical was neither the point nor the purpose. He doesn't care about who doubts him; the intended audience was his own team.
"Oh, I love it," said linebacker Max Bullough of Dantonio's penchant for saying big, bold things about the State program. "I love it. Maybe even too much sometimes, but I love it."
Michigan State is here – from unranked to No. 10, from unexpected to 11-1, from unheralded to set to go toe-to-toe with the mighty Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game – because Mark Dantonio has found away to build, operate and motivate a program along multiple seemingly conflicting paths.
The first is to stand geographically surrounded by three of the sport's most glamorous programs – Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame – and find players who either were passed over – "lowballed," as cornerback Darqueze Dennard put it – or eagerly sought out the chance to blaze their own trail here.
Those players then buy into the powerful notion of self-determination that Dantonio preaches, the concept that only the individual can control the future, that potential is reachable, that "the buck stops with me" and thus no excuses are tolerated. In fact, they don't just buy it. They covet the notion.
Finally, when he has an entire team of chip-on-their-shoulder, looking-for-a-fight high-achievers and they rise up and do spectacular things (such as winning every Big 10 game by double digits) Dantonio stands tall, glares around and challenges any doubters or skeptics to a fight.
Yeah, why not us?
The national stage may be new here, but this is not a woe-is-me operation. Dantonio will take shots at the Wolverines. He'll challenge perceptions in the media. He'll back his guys and talk them up and apologize for none of it.
It's a powerful emotion to tie together – the confident underdog – and one that Dantonio is increasingly pulling off up here over the last seven seasons. It's not just the 62 victories – including 11 in three of the last four seasons – but that elusive level of consistency and accountability and corresponding pride speaks to something bigger in store.
Does Michigan sign more high-rated recruits? Yeah, so? Why worry about that? It's tough to beat Michigan in recruiting. On the field, it turns out, it's different – five of the last six for MSU.
Yeah, why not us?
This is exactly what Ohio State will face Saturday night in Indy with its national title dreams in the balance – not just a ferocious defense and a burgeoning offense but a lot of knowing, well-earned swagger. Just how Dantonio wants it.
"To me swagger and confidence go hand in hand, and that's how we feel internally because of Coach D," Bullough said. "Because he's brought players that are like that in here. He's instilled that in us every single day in team meetings. I'm very similar to Coach D in that aspect. Every time he comes up here and says something like ['why not us?'], it gives me chills."
It only works, however, because of the work put in. It's not that MSU doesn't have talent or doesn't sign high-school stars – it does. The core, however, remains blue collar and team-first. That's the only way Dantonio will allow.
"I think that's something that the culture within our program creates," Dantonio, 59, said. "I think there's no question that every football program you have to go and you have to work to become what you want to become. And I think within our system here, you come in, you get into our weight program, you develop, you're on the field, we give opportunities to our players, and eventually you figure out that it's on you, that the buck stops there."
This isn't about recruiting rankings. This isn't about what gets said on ESPN. This isn't about which team is more famous. This is about each player realizing no one can stop them from lifting the weights, studying film and dedicating themselves to the team.
"I think we all have to understand that," he said. "That it starts with you. You have to take that component and idea and embrace it before you can go to anything else. You have to understand that you're responsible for your own success, and that's what we'll try and do.
"That's who we are."
A lesson for football?
"It's a lesson for life," he said.
And so here come the Spartans, whose Big Ten season has been every bit as dominant, and perhaps even more so, than Ohio State – not to mention the five-loss Wolverines down in Ann Arbor.
Yes, all the talk in the media is about Ohio State. All the focus is on Ohio State. All the speculation is about Ohio State. Dantonio doesn't care. He may even like it.
"It's about us," he said. "Absolutely, it's about us. It's not about them. We have to play them."
Mark Dantonio's once mid-pack program is ready for the primetime rock fight: proud of who they are, mindful of where they came and oh-so dangerously confident in what that all means.