If Big Ten Media Days were any indication, the most important question of the offseason is this: have you ever seen your coach shirtless? Or, if you hadn't, what did you think about another coaches shirtlessness?
Shilique Calhoun asked about shirtless Harbaugh pictures: "I think he's a very handsome man"— Mike Wilson (@MikeWilson247) July 30, 2015
Connor Cook asked about shirtless Harbaugh, he joked, "I thought it was great. I wish coach D would do stuff like that."— Matt Charboneau (@mattcharboneau) July 30, 2015
Michigan St DE Shilique Calhoun says he’s never seen Coach Dantonio without his shirt on— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) July 30, 2015
These questions, of course, are just terrible shorthand for, "give me a Harbaugh quote, pretty please." To MSU, though, they belie the larger narrative: it isn't about you.
It's not difficult to find national media explaining that Michigan State's window has closed. The worst was Rolling Stone's piece:
He's [Harbaugh] also a killer coach, a force of fearlessness and motivation that could have Michigan nipping at OSU's heels in no time. The results could soon reposition the Big Ten as, in a throwback to decades gone by, Buckeyes-vs.-Wolverines and then everybody else.
Ah, the "window closing" argument. This argument presupposes that MSU is not competitive at the conference or national level; that MSU has taken advantage of Michigan's down period (and to a lesser extent, Penn State's) to rack up wins. That's demonstrably false. Even if Dantonio didn't win a single game against Michigan, his record would be 69-37. In that hypothetical world, the 2010 MSU team doesn't grab a share of the Big Ten title, but the 2013 team still goes to the Rose Bowl. There would've been one year without a bowl game in 2009, but double-digit wins in four of the past five seasons would remain. Let's say you give Penn State the two games in 2013 and 2014 as well, after the sanctions were placed. Dantonio would still be 67-39, and would still have the 2013 Big Ten Title and Rose Bowl win, as well as double-digit wins in four of the last five seasons. Dantonio has also proven that his program stacks up against SEC, Big 12, and Pac-12 competition in bowl games.
Between nine and eleven games every year will come against teams not named Michigan, Ohio State, or Penn State. Even when those programs are at their peaks, MSU will still beat them sometimes. So can we cool it with the "window closing" argument, please?
But I doubt the players care so much about "window" dressing. I think they legitimately feel slighted:
"Ever since I've been at Michigan State people have overlooked us, but that's just motivation, it's another reason we have a chip on our shoulder... It's another reason why we come to work every day to wear the jersey and prove to everyone we belong in the conversation." - Connor Cook
There are two dirty secrets about the (sometimes literal) "chip on the shoulder" narrative. First, MSU received significant respect by the polls last year; second, history suggests that MSU still has plenty to prove.
After Braxton Miller's injury in fall camp last year, Doug Lesmerises re-did his Big Ten Poll. MSU came out as the overwhelming conference favorite (and lost in this is that anybody picked Iowa to win the B1G West). After losing to Oregon in week 2, MSU fell just six spots in the AP poll to 13th. MSU never dropped lower than 13th despite the best pre-bowl win coming in a nailbiter at home against Nebraska. This respect was well earned after the 2013 Rose Bowl win, and vindicated by the Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor. But the respect was there, nonetheless.
For the thornier point: before Mark Dantonio took over, MSU was a very good program coming off of a string of unfortunate head coaching events. Going into 2015, MSU is still a very good program, coming off of a string of good-to-great seasons. Winsipedia shows MSU as a historically strong Big Ten Program; better than the majority of the Big Ten but not among the conference elite.
Forgotten is that Dantonio's tenure is a blip in the history of MSU's football program, with just 8 of the 118 seasons of football played. That tenure has changed quite a bit for the program, from the tenor of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry (I don't think any Michigan fan disputes the rivalry-ness of the matchup anymore) to MSU's place on the national stage. But that doesn't change MSU's 34-68-5 record against Michigan. Nor does it change the 14-29 record against Ohio State. College football is a game of longevity.
This will sound overly dramatic, but Cook, Calhoun, and Allen are talking about having the wrong thing on their shoulders. It isn't so much a chip, but the history of the MSU program. And that doesn't necessarily mean that this squad has to win championships. Solidifying gains will do just fine. A fifth 10-win season would certainly accomplish that feat.
But if the 2015 team feels like they have something to prove, it's only because they do.