The Michigan State Spartans have spent most of their existence as a middle-of-the-pack type of team. However, over the last couple of seasons, they have climbed to the top of the Big Ten and are starting to make louder noise on the national scene.
Throughout college history, it is common for a school to get that one special class together. As they grow and learn the game, they are able to pull their school towards the top of the standings. Once those players graduate though, many tend to fall back to their previous standings. In recent years teams such as Cincinnati, Utah and Boston College have gone through this.
Michigan State now sits at that point. They are on arguably their best run ever and certainly their best in 50 years. Since Mark Dantonio was hired five seasons ago, they have gone 44-22. For the first time in their history, the team appeared in four straight bowl games. In that time, they have shared a conference title and won the first ever Legends Division crown.
Critics of the team—and yes many of them wear maize and blue—like to point out that the Spartans success has come while the Wolverines have been down, and in the midst some fortunate scheduling against the Buckeyes.
While this is true, it greatly discredits the team's success.
Michigan spent three years as a complete mess. Every other team in the Big Ten had the opportunity to take over their position among the Big Ten leaders but failed to do so. With the Big Ten’s scheduling, not every team plays each other every year. You have to play the teams in front of you—which the Spartans have done.Their recent success is due to what they have accomplished and not what other teams have or have not done.
While a team is not solely defined by a quarterback, often the rise and fall of a team seems to follow their career. Kirk Cousins may go down as the best QB leader the Spartans have ever had. He finished his career with 27 wins, the most ever for a Spartan QB. While there may be more talented players, Cousins was a flat out winner and leader. Now that job falls to Andrew Maxwell and that is why this will be the most important year in MSU’s history.
If the team can continue its recent success with a new leader, then it will prove that they are not just a short term wonder, but a school that intends to be a year after year force—in the Big Ten and the national rankings. Continued success will help draw top level recruits, which help keep the team playing well for years to come.
While players such as Cousins, Jerel Worthy, Trenton Robinson and Edwin Baker as well as most of the wide receiver core are gone, there is still plenty of talent here. They will return eight starters from what should be one of the top defenses in the nation. On offense, their line should be good and Le'Veon Bell will easily take over running back duties. The two big question marks will be Maxwell at QB and a very young and inexperienced wide receiver core. With their defense, the offense does not have to be great, just good.
Their schedule lines up pretty nicely early in this season. A year ago the Boise State game looked huge, however they graduated so many players that they are not the giant killer they have been in the past. Easy games with Central and Eastern Michigan bracket the rivalry game with Notre Dame, which will play at home.
The start of the conference play will have them play Ohio State at home. They do have a brutal three game stretch where they will go on the road to face Michigan and Wisconsin, then return home to face Nebraska. These games do happen in the back half of the season. That will give Maxwell and his receivers time to gain experience and build some cohesiveness as a unit.
The Spartans have been passed over a BCS games in each of the last two years. If they are able to put together another great season, they should be able to put those types of insults behind them. This is the year they prove they were built for a short run or the long haul.
Do they return to a middle of the pack team?
Or are they able to push aside Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan to become a regular player in the Big Ten Championship race?
PJ Sapienza is a featured columnist covering the Detroit Red Wings as well as many other sports.
You can follow him on Twitter.
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