EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Michigan State was in a charitable mood when it scheduled road games against the state’s Mid-American Conference schools, agreeing to take the football program along with fans in tow to fill stadiums and hotel rooms.
The fifth-ranked Spartans have much more to lose on the field against Western Michigan on Friday night than gain in a game they’re expected to win easily.
Coach Mark Dantonio disagrees, publicly at least.
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”I don’t look at it like that,” said Dantonio, entering his ninth year as the leader of a revived program. ”They all count one.”
This one, for the Broncos, is about as big as it gets.
”We’re really excited about Sept. 4, not only for the just the game part, but for our entire community,” Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck said.
Waldo Stadium’s 30,200 seats will be filled and many more will likely find their way in, but the attendance record is likely safe because the school is not allowed anymore to let fans sit on grass next to the grandstands.
Western Michigan has never beaten a ranked football team and will need a lot to go its way to change that in the season opener, including these things to watch:
A NEW LEVEL: Michigan State has sustained success under Dantonio in a way few saw coming in an area of the country that includes traditional powers: Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan. He has done what his predecessors, including former boss, Nick Saban, failed to do since Duffy Daugherty built a national power in the mid-1960s. The Spartans have their highest preseason ranking since 1967 after winning 26 of their last 29 games, including a 20-point comeback against Baylor in the last Cotton Bowl. Michigan State will find out a lot about its season next week in prime time at home against No. 7 Oregon.
HOT COACH: Western Michigan is led by the youngest coach at the top level of college football, and the 34-year-old Fleck will probably find some bigger schools are very interested in him if he can put together another winning season. The Broncos were 8-5 last year after winning only one game in Fleck’s first season, the nation’s top turnaround. He made his debut at Michigan State in 2013 after being an assistant for Greg Schiano at Rutgers and Tampa Bay, Jerry Kill at Northern Illinois, his alma mater, and a graduate assistant for Jim Tressel at Ohio State.
COOL HAND COOK: A 23-3 record as a starting quarterback did not do enough to make Connor Cook a captain this season. Cook is trying to play it cool, though he acknowledged being disappointed. ”I may not be a captain, but every time I step in the huddle, everybody looks to me to lead,” he said.
KEY TO UPSET: The Broncos’ best chance to pull off a stunning upset, or keep it close at least, is for running back Jarvion Franklin to top what he accomplished in his college debut. The 6-foot-220-pound Franklin ran for 163 yards, including a 61-yard gain, and three touchdowns in a 43-34 loss at Purdue. He finished the season with 1,551 yards rushing, a school-record 24 touchdowns on the ground and became the conference’s first to win the MAC Offensive Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year honors in one year. Dantonio expects Franklin to get the ball ”25, 30 times.”
RUNNING ROTATION: While Western Michigan will feature Franklin prominently, the Spartans plan to let up to four running backs compete for carries. Freshman Madre London is No. 1 on the depth chart, but Gerald Holmes, LJ Scott and Delton Williams are not far behind. ”Even when we had guys here like Le’Veon Bell, we have had more than one running back play a lot,” wide receiver R.J. Shelton said. ”They all can do something to help us win and I think they will show why they all deserve to be on the field.”
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