Connor Cook's amiable nature was on display in late July when the Michigan State quarterback held court with reporters at the Big Ten media days. One moment, however, caused Cook's face to harden and his demeanor to chill.

Connor Cook's amiable nature was on display in late July when the Michigan State quarterback held court with reporters at the Big Ten media days.

One moment, however, caused Cook's face to harden and his demeanor to chill.

"Could you win the starting quarterback job at Ohio State?" a reporter said.

"I'm not going to answer that," said Cook, who quickly looked away and started bouncing his right leg up and down as if shot with electricity.

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Pardon Cook for taking offense to such a loaded question. He is, after all, a three-year starter who has led Michigan State to a 23-3 record, a Big Ten title and victories in the Rose and Cotton bowls. But the question signifies a certain view of all the Spartans, even though they have won at least 11 games in four of the past five years and finished the past two seasons ranked in the top five.

Mark Dantonio, entering his ninth season at Michigan State, has taken the outside perception that the Spartans haven't quite achieved enough and turned it into the team's motto.

"We fell short of our goals (last season)," Dantonio said. "We need to continue to try and improve where we're at, and move it forward."

Michigan State, which begins its season tonight at Western Michigan, has earned a certain level of national respect, as evident in a No. 5 ranking that is its highest in the preseason since 1967.

Yet, the Spartans - despite going 11-2 last season with a Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor - spent much of the offseason hearing about national champion Ohio State and about Michigan and its new coach, Jim Harbaugh.

"I still look at us as underdogs because the talk is always about Michigan and Ohio State," said Jack Allen, the Spartans' All-America center.

Dantonio and his players commend OSU, a 49-37 winner at Michigan State last season, but they are eager for the rematch Nov. 21 in Columbus. Michigan State also is hungry for a shot at redemption on Sept. 12, when it plays host to national runner-up Oregon, the only other team to defeat the Spartans last season.

Those two losses showed how close Michigan State was to being a national champion, and the losses didn't dent the iron-clad confidence of the Spartans.

"We have complete and total belief in each other," said Shilique Calhoun, a two-time all-Big Ten defensive end. "The sky's the limit. There is no ceiling for us. We have all the potential we need as a team."

Michigan State returns 14 starters, led by Cook and Calhoun. The Spartans are deep and experienced on the offensive and defensive lines, both of which Dantonio said might be as talented as any in his nine-year tenure.

Pat Narduzzi, who spent the previous 11 seasons as Dantonio's defensive coordinator at Michigan State and Cincinnati, left to become coach at Pittsburgh. The Spartans promoted Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel as co-coordinators.

Michigan State must also replace senior linebacker Ed Davis, who was lost for the season to a knee injury suffered last month.

"We're going to be fine, and we're going to pick up exactly where we left off," Dantonio said.

And the Spartans will do so with the same underdog attitude.

"We come to work every day with a chip on our shoulder," Cook said. "Nothing is ever given."

tjones@dispatch.com

@Todd_Jones