Michigan State is coming off a 13-win season that included a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl triumph. Victories over Ohio State and Stanford were landmark wins for a program that consistently deals with skepticism. Even with three seasons of double-digit win totals in the past four years, there are still questions about the Spartans sustaining their success.
If first impressions are meaningful, Michigan State could be on tap for another special season. Ten starters return and quarterback Connor Cook, a hero of 2013, continued to progress in the spring. If key defensive pieces are replaced, a playoff berth could be within reach.
The “little brother” tag applied to the Spartans in relation to in-state rival Michigan has disappeared – Michigan State is 5-1 against the Wolverines since 2008 – big wins have been ingrained into the culture and Mark Dantonio’s provided stability.
At the Rose Bowl celebration ceremony, Dantonio warned that the job still isn’t finished and the biggest impediment standing in Michigan State’s way is itself.
“Once you get complacent and think it’s OK where you’re at and you’re satisfied, that’s when other people pass you up,” senior safety Kurtis Drummond said this spring. “If you’re always looking at something you can improve on and just remain humble and hungry and never forget where you came from, it’s going to always push you to go after whatever you want to achieve.”
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Cook went one step further, saying the team is tired of talking about the Rose Bowl. The game is in the past and Michigan State is focused on the future – a day where loftier expectations are realized.
A good barometer on program success is how many donor dollars are pouring in. They’re printing money in Michigan State’s athletic department. A north end zone expansion and new recruiting lounge have spruced up Spartan Stadium. The 50,000-square-foot facility will act as Michigan State’s recruiting nerve center for Saturdays.
“A building like this will make a huge difference,” Dantonio said.
If the Spartans don’t beat themselves in 2014, defeats could come because of the losses on defense. Michigan State must replace the core of its vaunted defense. Gone are Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Darqueze Dennard. All three were All-Big Ten players. Fellow all-conference selections Isaiah Lewis (strong safety) and Blake Treadwell (offensive line) also departed.
But it’s not like the Spartans are devoid of talent. The defensive line is one of the most talented in the Big Ten, with Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush as bookends. The biggest question mark on defense is the linebacker corps, where Taiwan Jones is the lone returning starter.
Offensively, the belief is Michigan State is poised to breakout. Even in a 13-1 season, points did not pile up. Michigan State used a Tresselball approach, relying on the defense to slow down opponents and then capitalizing on opportunities on offense. After all, three members of the staff – Dantonio, Jim Bollman and Mike Tressel – have direct connections to Jim Tressel.
The emergence of Connor Cook was one of the surprises of 2013. He completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 2,755 yards with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions. And he didn’t even become the starter till late September.
“I like the position we are in right now just because we have established our identity and we know what we have and we know we have proved to everyone what we can do on offense,” Cook said. “That’s exciting as a quarterback, especially only losing one receiver and three offensive linemen and with guys that can step up and fill right in. So, really, the sky is the limit for us as an offense.”
The limit will be tested throughout the season, with games against Oregon, Michigan and Ohio State. One loss could derail the Spartans’ grand goals. But in a new world where Michigan State’s shed its schizophrenic past, an abundance of prosperity could be on the horizon.