A year ago Mark Dantonio announced at the Big Ten media days that he planned to take the Michigan State Spartans to their first bowl game since 2003.
Many of the college football experts laughed him off, and said that they expected MSU to continue the losing ways that had been established under John L. Smith. Five or six wins was the best season that the Spartans could hope for, according to many.
Dantonio is at it again.
After a season in which the Spartans went 7-6, travelled to Orlando for the Champs Sports Bowl, and never lost a game by more than a touchdown, Dantonio has said that Michigan State has the talent to win the Big Ten title.
"Our goal will be to win a Big Ten championship this year, and I have no problem standing up here and saying that." Dantonio told the assembled media.
Most people will probably dismiss Dantonio's goal much like they did last season, but fans and pundits alike should not be so quick to dismiss Michigan State. Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema, who predicted that Illinois would have a big year in 2007, mentioned MSU as a team to watch out for.
"Mark Dantonio going into his second year, they had us on the ropes in Madison a year ago," Bielema said. "And I know, that's going to be a challenging game for us."
Michigan State returns several key starters, including QB Brian Hoyer and RB Javon Ringer on offense, and LB Greg Jones on defense. Players like WR Mark Dell will be expected to shoulder more responsibility than they did last season, partially to help fill in the hole left by WR Devin Thomas' early departure.
Perhaps the biggest reason that we should believe in the Spartans' turnaround is their newfound mental toughness.
Under John L. Smith, late-game collapses and boneheaded penalties became the norm. Along with a new system, Dantonio brought a new mindset, and has his team believing that they can compete with the best in the country.
"If you don't talk about championships within your football team and within your program, you're doing yourself a disservice and selling your players short," Dantonio said.
"Last year, every single game that we went into, we expected to win. And we had a chance to win every single game going into the last three or four minutes. So it's not as far away as you think, and then again, not as close as you'd imagine."
Michigan State opens the 2008 season on Aug. 30 with an 8:00 PM game at California.
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