The Spartans continuity signals a power shift in the state of Michigan.
It has been triggered by a 6-1 record against teams in Michigan over the last three seasons.
Entering his fifth year as head coach for the Spartans, Mark Dantonio has compiled a 33-19 record.
Every other year has been marked with successful seasons for Dantonio. In 2007 and 2009, the Spartans ended their season in a lower-tier bowl. In 2008 and 2010, they were one step away from “The Granddaddy of them all” by playing in the Capital One Bowl.
Last season can best be described as unexpected. Besides their surprising wins against Co- Big Ten Champion Wisconsin and Michigan at the Big House, they also caught opponents off guard with plays like “The Little Giants” and “The Mousetrap.”
Maintaining success has been a problem throughout Michigan State’s history. Fortunately, they have a quarterback in Kirk Cousins, who has good head on his shoulders and was selected as the keynote speaker at the Big Ten luncheon.
After hearing his speech, humbling and humorous can be added to his repertoire. When a child asked him if he wished he was as good as Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, he said he responded with a yes, and added, “I heard Denard’s only wish is that he could run like me.”
Cousins will be leading the strength of the team with six other offensive starters returning. In his career, he has amassed 41 passing touchdowns, while accounting for 20 interceptions. The three years he’s been a captain have also been beneficial for the Spartans.
“[Cousins] provides a lot of leadership for us,” Dantonio said at the Big Ten media day. “He brings a sense of calm, a sense of confidence to our football team. He’s got great game management skills.”
The Cousins-led offense also has assurance from junior running back, Edwin Baker and sophomore Le’Veon Bell, who combined for 1,806 rushing yards last year. Larry Caper is also a dark horse after accumulating the most carries in 2009.
Cousins also has a solid group of receivers, consisting of three seniors, to throw to. Wide receiver B.J. Cunningham is 10 catches away from being the receptions leader in Spartans history. Keshawn Martin has gradually progressed throughout his career. Martin caught 14 more passes than in 2009 with 32 and also contributes in other ways. He has rushed for 427 yards over his career.
Keith Nichol got a taste of being a receiver after being at the other end of the spectrum as a quarterback during his high school and early college career. He had 22 catches last year and was a great asset as a blocker.
In what is expected to be a tight race in the Big Ten’s Legends division, Michigan State’s kicker might give them an edge. Dan Conroy has missed only one of 16 attempts in his time with the Spartans, including a 5/5 mark from 40-plus yards.
The Spartans did not lack motivation during the off-season after they were dismantled 49-7 by Alabama in the Citrus Bowl.
The Spartans start the season with an easy non-conference schedule that includes Youngstown State, Florida Atlantic and Central Michigan. Their toughest test before the conference schedule begins will be at Notre Dame, which is always a hard-fought game. In their last 10 meetings, the victor has alternated every year, except for the 2007 and 2008 seasons, when Michigan State won two in a row, making them winners of six of the last ten games.
The introduction of Nebraska into the Big Ten will make the Spartans conference schedule more difficult than last season.
Michigan State will renew its battle against Ohio State in the Horseshoe after the Buckeyes were left off the schedule last season. While Tressel will not be at the helm, the Buckeyes do not lack talent.
The two games after that will be at home against Michigan and Wisconsin. Quarterback Kirk Cousins will look to leave East Lansing with an undefeated record against the Wolverines in his three years as a starter. Due to a scheduling flaw with the Big Ten realignment, the Spartans will host Big Ten championship contender Wisconsin for the second year in a row.
The end of the difficult stretch of games will be a long shot for the Spartans. They will travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to play the Cornhuskers, who are the favorites to win the Big Ten.
The last four games will be an easier task. They will face teams in Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana and Northwestern, which are in the middle-to-bottom of the pack in the Big Ten.
Will the Spartans handle the pressure of the high expectations and the target on their back after clinching their first Big Ten Championship in 20 seasons? The answer to that question will determine if Michigan State is the Spartans of old or new.
“We climbed one mountain and you think you’re getting to the top of the mountain, but you find out, there is another mountain there to climb as well,” Dantonio said.