With two more wins, Connor Cook can leave no doubt about his legacy and future

DALLAS — A list of the most accomplished college quarterbacks this century would surely include guys like Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Marcus Mariota.

In just a couple of weeks, it’s possible we’ll be adding the name Connor Cook.

No, really.

Michigan State’s senior signal-caller rarely gets mentioned among the nation’s elite quarterbacks, with understandable justification. The three-year starter has never sniffed an All-America team. The highest he’s finished a season nationally in passer rating was 19th in 2014; he currently sits 36th this season.

But in the NFL, Tom Brady does not get feted for his numbers as much as his number of Super Bowl rings. Cook, a career 34-4 starter, already owns two Big Ten championships and both Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl trophies. Now, he sits two victories away from capping off his career with a national title.

And he’s done all of that at a school that previously went decades without any notable milestones.

"He’s won a heck of a lot of football games," Spartans co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said Monday. "He’s lost four games here as a starter. That’s the big thing with a quarterback. If you can now add to it a national championship, there’s probably nothing better than that."

Due to the nature of Mark Dantonio’s run-first pro offense, Cook doesn’t get many chances to put up gaudy numbers like his counterparts at schools like Baylor and Oregon. That said, he beat both of those teams this calendar year. He’s also played some of his best games in the Spartans’ biggest games, from a 304-yard, three-touchdown performance in Michigan State’s 2013 Big Ten title game upset of undefeated Ohio State to leading a 20-point fourth quarter comeback against Baylor in last season’s Cotton Bowl win.

Even on the Spartans’ primarily run-driven, 22-play drive to beat undefeated Iowa in this year’s conference title game, Cook delivered one of the most important plays by converting a fourth-and-2 on a surprising speed option run.

"Obviously, I’m not a dual threat by any means," he joked Monday in response to a question about a model at his position. "But a quarterback that I admire a lot is Tom Brady — even though he went to Michigan. I like the way he plays. He’s a winner, too. He’s always accurate and no matter what is going on in the game, he always puts his team in the right situation to go out there and win and be successful."

For some time now, Cook’s lofty status as an NFL Draft prospect has seemingly outpaced his relatively modest college accolades. Many consider him a possible first-round pick next spring. On Monday, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart could not have been more effusive in his evaluation.

"This guy’s got the arm strength, he’s accurate, he anticipates real well," Smart said. "It reminds me when I’m watching it of when Matt Ryan was at Boston College. He’s a prototypical step-up-in-the-pocket, avoid the rush, make all the throws — and they run deigned runs for this guy.

"I think he’s going to be an unbelievable pro."

So why, then, has he sometimes been a less-than-unbelievable collegian? Part of it is the design of Michigan State’s offense, but then it’s not like pro-style quarterbacks can’t be highly efficient. Former Alabama star AJ McCarron led the nation in pass efficiency during the Tide’s 2012 national title season, as did Florida State’s Jameis Winston the next. Spread QB Vernon Adams Jr. of Oregon leads the nation this season, but Stanford’s Kevin Hogan is fourth.

Cook this season boasts an impressive 24-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, but has completed just 56.9 percent of his passes for 2,921 yards — a mere 7.9 yards per attempt. But much of that is a result of Michigan State’s inexperienced skill players this season. No Le’Veon Bell or Jeremy Langford has yet emerged on a consistent basis in the Spartans’ backfield, and senior Aaron Burbridge has essentially been Cook’s lone reliable target.

If anything, it’s a tribute to Cook that he got his team this far, though it comes with the caveat that he did not play in Michigan State’s biggest win of the season at Ohio State.

Which is why Thursday night’s game truly could be a dramatic legacy-changer.

While Cook has beaten several highly respected opponents in his three seasons, none carried the cachet of Nick Saban-era Alabama, in particular the 2015 Tide’s thus-far dominant defense. Given no one has yet been able to run the ball on Alabama, a Michigan State victory likely hinges on its quarterback.

"I really don’t see a whole lot of vulnerability [on Alabama’s defense]," said Cook, "but occasionally they’ll get beat deep in the passing game."

Multiple Alabama defenders said Monday that Cook is the best quarterback they’ve faced this season. One likened him to Peyton Manning. All of that may seem like over-the-top hyperbole if Cook lays an egg Thursday night.

If he wins, though, the conversations surrounding Cook will change overnight. And it would greatly intensify were he to then turn around and beat Clemson or Oklahoma, resulting in Michigan State’s first national championship in a half-century.

"I don’t care if you like me or you don’t like me," he said. "I’m just going to go out there, have fun and lead my team to victory."

He’s already done it 34 times. Two more and that aforementioned resume will stack up favorably with any number of recent college greats.