After just two full seasons in charge of the Michigan State Spartans, Mark Dantonio has completely changed the culture of the former Big Ten doormat.
Now, he's got his sights on big things. Rose Bowl big.
The problem is, a lot of critics seem to think that John L. Smith is still running things in East Lansing. When Dantonio said he wanted to turn the team around after a four-win season in 2006, he was laughed at. When he said last season that he wanted to make a New Year's Day bowl, he was laughed at.
Any prediction involving a successful Michigan State team in 2009 has been met with laughter and snide comments saying that the Spartans will struggle without Hoyer and Ringer.
Uhh, last time I checked, the Spartans actually improved when Drew Stanton left, and again after the departure of Jehuu Caulcrick. Dantonio is a great coach, he'll find a way.
That said, you can't deny the fact that MSU is losing a key piece (Ringer) from a nine-win team. On the surface, it seems like that would be enough to weaken them and make a title run a near impossibility for 2009.
But dig a little deeper, and you'll see that the Spartans are actually in a great position to win a conference title and finally snag that elusive BCS bid.
It's all about the schedule, baby.
In a year where Michigan State is without an experienced running back or quarterback, they have the good fortune to avoid playing Ohio State.
The Buckeyes have given the Spartans fits in recent seasons. They've driven people to incoherent madness. Not a big surprise, given that OSU has been the class of the conference for years.
It's still a little puzzling. MSU has figured out how to beat Penn State, Michigan, and Notre Dame, all traditional rivals. But they just can't find the key to the Buckeyes' lock. It's definitely a blessing to avoid a trip down to Columbus this season.
The schedule only gets kinder from there. Most experts seem to be very high on Iowa this season, but they have to travel into the hostile environment of Spartan Stadium. For the second season in a row. Ask Shonn Greene how well last year's trip turned out.
Most experts are also expecting Michigan to improve. I think they need to temper their expectations a little bit, but 3-9 in 2008 won't change the fact that this is an important rivalry game. This installment of the rivalry is also happening in East Lansing, and the Spartan faithful always get amped up for this game.
The Spartans also get Penn State at home, which should go a long way toward helping Spartan fans forget about the horrific blowout suffered in State College last season. Remember the last time Penn State rolled into East Lansing? Some second-half heroics by Brian Hoyer and Devin Thomas landed MSU in their first bowl game in years.
With the toughest games on the schedule all taking place at home, it's not too far-fetched to say that the 2009 edition of the Spartans could win 10 or 11 games. It's not going to be an easy schedule by any means, but it works out very favorably.
Before I end this column, there's one more game on the schedule that deserves some attention. It's the marquee match-up in South Bend.
Plenty of folks seem to be hopping on the Irish bandwagon this preseason. I've seen some pretty ridiculous predictions for this game, including several folks who think that the Irish will walk away with an easy blowout.
Hang on a minute.
Fun fact—if you started attending Notre Dame in 1997 or later, you've never seen the Irish beat Michigan State at home.
Against Notre Dame, the Spartans have had more success in recent years at South Bend—winning six in a row and counting—than at home. You've also got the small matter of most of the defense that held Weis and co. to a meager seven points in 2008 returning for 2009.
If Michigan State manages to take home Lucky Number Seven in South Bend, they've got a great shot at 11 wins and a Big Ten Title.
Not bad for a team who too frequently tasted defeat in the years between Perles and Saban, and Saban and Dantonio.