Challenges are mighty but Spartans no strangers to long odds
East Lansing – Take a glance at the various predictions you can find this time of year and very few will mention Michigan State as a team that has what it takes to win the Big Ten – or even the East Division, for that matter.
Actually, scratch that. Nowhere is Michigan State mentioned as a team to beat in one of the toughest divisions in college football.
It’s not a shock. Michigan State fell flat on the field in 2016, winning just three games the season following a trip to the College Football Playoff. The offseason was worse as the Spartans dealt with several problems off the field and suffered critical blows to the roster.
However, if there is someone in the Big Ten who understands defying expectations, it is Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. After all, he’s been in this spot before.
Most recently it was the eve of the 2013 season with Michigan State coming off a 7-6 record and no real idea who its quarterback would be. The Spartans, of course, won 13 games that season, beating Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
Things were as shaky in 2010 as Michigan State went through a sub-par 2009 followed by off-field issues. By the end of the ’10 season the Spartans had won a share of the Big Ten title and sparked the beginning of a run of double-digit win seasons that took place over five of six seasons.
Whether a similar revival is in store is hard to predict, but as the players reported for preseason camp on Sunday, there was some solace the Spartans have been in this spot before.
“We went through some challenges in 2012, losing some close games, and I think it made them stronger and made them have a little bit more of a mindset to move forward,” Dantonio said at the Big Ten’s media days. “The ’13 team was a bunch of unknowns at the beginning of the season. I mean, who ever knew Jeremy Langford would do what he did or that Connor Cook would become what he did? All those things took place, and all of a sudden, things move forward.”
The difficulty this time around is trying to see who will become the next great Spartan.
Running back isn’t a question – senior Gerald Holmes and juniors LJ Scott and Madre London are all back – but nearly every other position is. That wasn’t the case back in 2013.
The defense had experience and was on the verge of becoming the best in the nation and the offensive line was established. The same can’t be said as Michigan State opens practice Monday. From quarterback to tight end to wide receiver to defensive end to cornerback to kicker, Michigan State is counting on young and inexperienced players to be in huge roles.
“We're not a senior-dominated team this year,” Dantonio said. “We have about nine seniors on scholarship. We have a lot of young players that are able to take their step forward in a leadership path.”
But for those who have been around, there is one key to Michigan State’s success – Dantonio.
“Coaches and programs have their downfalls,” said Holmes, who sat out as a redshirt but soaked up every bit of the 2013 run. “But the kind of program Coach D has built at this school is a winning team and a comeback team.
“Think about the years we have won. There were games we were down but came back and fought. Last year the same thing; we just didn’t come back. I feel like now it’s going to be different. It’s more about coming out on top and working harder, even harder than before.”
The hard work has been evident, players and coaches say, from the moment last season ended. There’s been a refocusing to what made Michigan State successful and it’s made Dantonio optimistic.
However, he understands the realities, that nothing will come easy, especially with road games against Ohio State and Michigan, along with a visit to Spartan Stadium from Penn State.
The Spartans have been here before. Whether it’s the start of another revival remains to be seen.
“There will be challenges along the way. I don't think there's any question about that,” Dantonio said. “But we established ourselves as a championship program inch by inch. There was nothing ever given to us, and that's how we've handled it. That's how we've taken it. We have to go back to that mindset, understand that things don't come easy.”