MSU's Felton Davis, Joe Bachie and Kenny Willekes talk about Friday's matchup vs. Utah State The Detroit News
East Lansing — Michigan State has been in this position before.
In the previous 11 seasons under coach Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have entered their share of seasons with lofty expectations. Whether it was coming off the first Big Ten title under Dantonio in 2010 or after the Rose Bowl victory in 2013, Michigan State understands what it means to have its name among those in the mix for a conference championship. And these days, often, that comes with a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Well, as the 2018 season is set to kick off Friday night when Utah State visits Spartan Stadium, Michigan State is once again among the contenders. Ranked No. 11 in the Associated Press preseason poll, the Spartans should be right in the thick of the race in the Big Ten East, arguably the toughest division of any conference in the country.
However, there will be no resting on laurels.
Even after Michigan State proved that 2016 and its three victories was an anomaly by improving to 10 wins in 2017, there’s an understanding that nothing is given in college football, especially when you’re joined in the top 15 by four other teams in your conference.
“This is a new day. This is 2018,” Dantonio said Tuesday. “Like I said, there’s a reason I put my name and I have everybody put their name on their helmets when we go to camp because we’re all starting over. There are no guarantees. We need to play. We need to get ready to play and go about our business.”
The players that have been around understand that. Most played a role in what happened in 2016 and just as many were key to the turnaround last season.
Experiencing both swings has the Spartans in position to easily move on from the previous season and start fresh.
“Every year we come in with a new mindset and a new mantra and that is to build on something,” senior wide receiver Felton Davis said. “Last year was just trying to replant our feet in the ground. This year the mantra is, ‘Heave,’ and that is all of us pulling (together). I feel like every year it’s something new and this year we have to prove ourselves once again, that last year was not a fluke, 10 wins is not something that just happened out of the blue, we actually worked for it.”
More: Linebackers a 'good situation' for Dantonio, Michigan State
Ten wins might not be enough to achieve what the Spartans are shooting for this season. That’s the reality of playing in the Big Ten East.
With Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan all on the schedule and all shooting for that coveted spot in the conference championship game, there will be few weeks where a victory seems certain. But that’s where the seven-win turnaround from 2017 comes into play.
Now, the Spartans have a roster full of players that know what it takes.
“We know how to win,” junior linebacker Joe Bachie said. “You learn how to win. My first year, my first year of college football was three wins.
“I didn’t understand what winning took in college. Last year we come back with 10 wins (and) a bowl game. It was huge for our confidence. Now we’ve got everyone returning and people know how win, people know how to compete for a championship and that’s what we’ll take moving forward with us.”
The first step comes at 7 p.m. Friday against a Utah State team that isn’t totally unlike Michigan State. The Spartans return 19 starters while the Aggies bring back 18. And while Utah State didn’t win 10 games last season, it did reach its sixth bowl game in seven seasons.
It’s enough to have the attention of the Spartans, who have no intention of taking any team lightly this season by starting 2018 with a clean slate.
“If you live in the past you never improve,” Bachie said. “I move forward. Last season is over and now it’s, ‘What is Joe Bachie gonna do now? What is the Michigan State defense gonna do now?’ That’s something we really look at. Every day it’s a different approach. ‘What can I work on that day?’ I think we’ve improved this week. We’re getting ready, getting prepared.”
It’s the sort of talk that leaves Dantonio feeling good about where his team is on the eve of another season. They’ve got the experience — good and bad — and with that comes the confidence of what can be accomplished moving forward.
But, it won’t be simple. That includes Friday against Utah State.
“We start to build a foundation in terms of who we are,” Dantonio said. “I think every year you build a foundation, who are the play-makers, who are the guys you can rely on, where is the team chemistry, leadership, those type of things.
“A lot of that has already happened last year, so I think that’s the reason for optimism.
“There are no easy football games. I think we understand that here.”