For Michigan State fans, it's bittersweet to wonder what might have been; to picture how the season might have ended without a few phantom pass-interference calls at Notre Dame in September. But it's fun as heck to wonder what might be.
The Spartans beat Stanford, 24-20, in the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl on Wednesday night, refusing to be content with merely playing in Pasadena for the first time since 1988. A four-point margin was hardly indicative of the performance, either. They physically dominated a team that was billed as physically dominant, and they did so on both sides of the ball.
By every objective metric, 2013 was a rousing success for Michigan State—especially on the heels of last year's star-crossed 7-6 campaign, when five conference games were lost by 13 total points. The Wolverines' little brother is all grown up, and given the direction of this program, it's fair to question its ceiling.
Can this team contend for a national title next season?
The upcoming offseason will be an important one in East Lansing. First and foremost, the Spartans need to ensure that they retain head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. According to Josh Slagter of MLive.com, Dantonio is rumored to be a candidate for the Texas opening—which perhaps you've heard something about—and Narduzzi has already been offered (and rejected) a head-coaching job for a team, Connecticut, that played in the Fiesta Bowl just three short years ago.
Still, both men seem genuinely committed to building up this program, and even though loyalty means little in the sordid world of college football, Dantonio's recent extension is a very good sign that he will stay. And if the band stays together in 2014, why can't MSU compete for a spot in the first College Football Playoff?
The losses on defense will be felt, but Narduzzi's return would be more important than that of any player. Guys like Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Darqueze Dennard cannot be replicated, but the Spartans have dealt well with personnel losses these past few years. There's no reason to expect anything different.
Remember, after all, that before winning the Jim Thorpe Award in 2013, Dennard himself was replacing a Michigan State legend in Johnny Adams. There were questions about how this defense would fare after losing its best pass-defender, along with important front-seven players like William Gholston.
It seems to have turned out just fine.
Trae Waynes was one of the breakout stars in the Big Ten this year, and just like Dennard, he should thrive with a promotion to No. 1 cornerback. The same goes for almost every position on Michigan State's defense.
Narduzzi keeps this cupboard well-stocked; as long as he remains in East Lansing, the defense will be good enough to compete for a Big Ten championship. The real question comes on the other side of the ball.
To that end, Michigan State's fate rests squarely on the arm of rising junior quarterback Connor Cook, who ended the year with two very strong performances against Ohio State and Stanford. He was so-so for most of the season—remember, Michigan State scored just 14 points against Purdue in October—but appeared to turn the corner late, once the team was officially "his."
He needs to carry that momentum into the offseason and challenge himself to get better. This cannot be the extent of his potential. Its ranking will certainly improve after the Rose Bowl, but still, according to Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings, MSU had the No. 51 offense in America during the regular season.
Since that statistic was initially recorded in 2007, no national champion has finished with an offense below No. 5, checking in with an average of No. 2.5. Half had the top-ranked offense in the country.
Defense alone might win Big Ten championships and Rose Bowls, but balance wins crystal-football trophies. Especially if the defense takes a slight step back next season, the offense must find a way to catch up. Cook will be back. Running back Jeremy Langford will be back. Of the 18 Spartan players who caught a pass this season, 17 are underclassmen.
If Cook can make the "leap" and the coaching staff remains intact, this team is good enough to beat every team on its schedule—even with a slate that includes a road trip to Oregon and a visit from Ohio State in 2014. The advantage is clearly in Michigan State's favor, especially with Michigan mired in such a funk.
After Wednesday's game, Dantonio spoke of being satisfied with his team's "completion," according to ESPN Big Ten. That's all well and good for now, but the Spartans' ascent is not yet complete. Starting next season, this squad will have a target on its back and goals that exceed winning the Rose Bowl.
But that's a good problem to have.