Kyle Elsworth (41) and Dion Sims work on their blocking during a kicking drill during practice. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)
East Lansing -- They're saying all the right things, which is what you'd expect on media day. But they're expecting all the right things, too, which is a sign that maybe -- just maybe -- we should expect something more from Michigan State's football program this fall.
Mark Dantonio's team managed to turn MSU's third consecutive bowl appearance last winter into something negative, a uniquely Spartan accomplishment. But rather than dwelling on what went wrong -- most notably a raft of player suspensions stemming from a late-November residence hall assault case -- Dantonio is taking the right approach as the Spartans begin camp this week: He's turning up the heat.
"From top to bottom," Dantonio said Monday, "I would say probably this is as talented a team as we've had."
And then he took it a step further, comfortably thinking big.
"I expect to win every football game," said Dantonio, who is 22-17 in his first three years at Michigan State. "I'm not ashamed to sit up here and say that. That's my expectation. We have the talent to play with anybody on our schedule."
Air of confidence
He went on to talk about minimizing mistakes and maximizing potential -- all the usual cliches for a college football coach. But to his credit, Dantonio kept coming back to that same theme: With his coaching staff entering its fourth year in East Lansing, it's time for the Spartans to quit making mistakes -- on and off the field -- and stop making excuses.
"I've always maintained that we have an opportunity to win," Dantonio said. "But I think as far as the confidence goes, you see your players more often, you find out more about 'em, you find out how they react in tough situations. So I think expectations are higher for us. I think they're higher because of the way we've reacted to things. I think they're higher because I know we need to win back some respect. I understand that."
At first glance, his players seem to understand that as well, though we won't know for sure until classes begin and the season kicks off and the pressure starts to take hold. But for now, there's a not-so-quiet confidence, with a proven quarterback in Kirk Cousins, an All-American defensive anchor in Greg Jones and another solid freshman class led by linebacker William Gholston.
"You can see it, without even talking about it," junior receiver B.J. Cunningham, one of the players reinstated by Dantonio this spring after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge. "You can see it in everybody's eyes. We want to win this championship. We want to be great this year."
That sounds great, even if it's not all that realistic, particularly considering the question marks on the offensive and defensive lines, which is where Big Ten titles typically are won and lost.
But let's be honest: Michigan State's schedule only adds to the expectations. The Spartans don't play a road game until Oct. 9 at Michigan, they don't leave the state until Oct. 23 -- it does get a bit rocky after that -- and they don't play Ohio State, the overwhelming Big Ten favorite, at all.
Pieces in place
So can this finally be the year the Spartans end a 20-year conference title drought?
"Absolutely," Dantonio said. "I've always said from Day 1 coming here, you expect to win championships. With that being said, it hasn't happened in awhile. But when you look at what has transpired here the last three years, you've got to win the close games, you've got to finish. But those possibilities are real."
They weren't when he arrived back in 2007. Still, it's hard to argue Dantonio hasn't delivered what he promised to date. He talked about getting MSU back to a bowl in his first year, which he did, then about playing in January in his second year, when the Spartans went 9-4 and even flirted with Rose Bowl talk in November. Last year, he hedged his bets with a young team that painfully proved him right with fourth-quarter flops against Central Michigan, Notre Dame and Iowa.
This time around, Michigan State's banking on a potentially explosive offense, while expecting considerably more from a defense that allowed 26.3 points per game and ranked last in the Big Ten against the pass.
" 'Stats are for losers,' is what we've always said," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said Tuesday, inadvertently proving his critics' point.
Still, he's right about one thing: The difference between winning and losing often comes down to one or two critical plays, as was the case in the crushing loss to Iowa.
"If you look at 2008, we made plays when we had to, we kicked field goals when we had to, and we won the games," Narduzzi said. "Last year, we didn't win the tight games. So what is it? Is it a little bit of luck? Is it we didn't make the play? When you look back at it, you go, 'Man, it's not as bad as it seems to be.' "
But by the same token, it's hard to put much stock in the Spartans' three-year bowl streak when you consider this team finished with a sub-.500 record last year.
Which brings us back to the here and now, and the importance of truly turning the corner for this program. (And let's table the silly debate over shifting the in-state balance of power with the Wolverines until October, shall we?)
The pieces are in place, the continuity is no longer an issue, and as offensive coordinator Don Treadwell put it Tuesday, "It's nice to actually be going on a fourth year and to, as the Bible would phrase it, reap what you sow."
So, then, what's it gonna be, Spartans?