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Favored Tide, underdog Spartans: Roles both teams relish

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Perhaps it's appropriate that Michigan State's opponent in a playoff semifinal will be Alabama - the one program that makes pretty much everyone look like an underdog.

Throughout the Spartans' rise under coach Mark Dantonio, they have been fueled by an unyielding sense that no matter what they accomplish, there will always be doubters. Sometimes the disrespect toward Michigan State is obvious for everyone to see, and other times it feels a bit more contrived - but there's no denying that Dantonio's players feed off it.

''I would rather be the underdog, I guess,'' Spartans defensive back Demetrious Cox said. ''It's a better feeling when you have to prove people wrong.''

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To understand Michigan State's attitude - the perpetual chip on the program's shoulder - you must first look about 65 miles down the road at the school's biggest rival. Michigan, with all its tradition and national prestige, dominated its series with the Spartans for about 40 years, and the Wolverines do not even consider Michigan State their top rival. That distinction, of course, belongs to Ohio State.

After Dantonio took over in East Lansing, he lost his first meeting with Michigan in 2007. Following that game, Wolverines running back Mike Hart infamously compared Michigan State to a ''little brother'' and the Spartans have won seven of eight in the series since.

''When you come here, and you're an out-of-state guy, you really don't know about the Michigan rivalry like that,'' said Cox, who is from Pennsylvania. ''You know about it, but you don't really know until you get here and you see the `little brother' video, and you see all the videos that they play in meeting rooms.''

Last year, after the Spartans beat the Wolverines 35-11, Michigan State was upset because a Michigan player had driven a tent stake into the ground before the game in an effort to fire up his teammates. The gesture went largely unnoticed until the Spartans made a big issue of it. When the Wolverines are involved, there may be no slight too small to get Michigan State's attention.

Now the Spartans have to beat Alabama, the national champion in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

Dantonio has downplayed his team's penchant for using an opponent's lofty reputation as motivation.

''Everybody keeps saying we have a chip on our shoulder all the time. Maybe it's because I don't smile up here often enough,'' Dantonio said. ''The chip on our shoulder is relative to us, how we play, how we respond. Has nothing to do with who we are playing against, because we have a great deal of respect for everybody we play against. But the chip on our shoulder is for - it's just, we need to get ourselves ready to play.''

But Michigan State can always find critics to silence. This is a team that has won 38 of its last 42 games, yet nobody needs to remind the Spartans who is supposed to contend for national championships and who isn't.

For example, Michigan State's last five recruiting classes were ranked 27th, 37th, 47th, 19th and 18th by Scout.com. Alabama's were ranked seventh, second, fourth, first and second. So even though the Spartans have earned plenty of respect this year as playoff participants, don't expect all this glamour to change Michigan State's approach.

''We weren't recruited that way, so that mindset never kind of set in for us - to think that we're owed anything,'' defensive lineman Joel Heath said. ''I think you've got to be aware of that with younger guys, guys coming in thinking that they're entitled to something, but as of now, we don't really have that mindset.''

True to form, Michigan State has done some of its best work this season as an underdog. The Spartans won at Michigan when the Wolverines botched a punt on the final play, and Michigan State beat Ohio State despite an injury that prevented star quarterback Connor Cook from playing.

After winning as a favorite in the Big Ten title game against Iowa, third-ranked Michigan State is back to being the underdog against second-ranked Alabama in Thursday night's matchup. Back in September, there was a bit of a stir when Georgia was installed as a slight favorite over the Crimson Tide - Alabama had not been an underdog since the 2009 Southeastern Conference title game against Florida.

The Tide responded by drubbing Georgia 38-10.

Against Michigan State, Alabama opened as a 9 1/2-point favorite. Business as usual for the Tide.

And for the Spartans, too.

''We love that role. We embrace it,'' Cook said. ''It's kind of who we are as a program with the chip on our shoulder. . No matter who we're facing, if we are the underdog, if we are the favorite, no matter what, we go into each and every game trying to prove something.''

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Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister