As we kick off the 2011 college football season, these are heady times in East Lansing, Mich.
The Michigan State Spartans are coming off their first Big Ten championship in nearly two decades.
Can the green-and-white repeat as champs?
With the addition of Nebraska to the Big Ten, an expected resurgence in Ann Arbor under Brady Hoke and the presence of perennial contenders in Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State and Iowa, many would say no.
But the cupboard is hardly bare for Mark Dantonio and Co.
Here are five reasons why Michigan State will win the Big Ten in 2011.
Is it possible that the champs will become full of themselves?
Will the Spartans become cocky, especially after they start 2-0 with victories over Youngstown State and Florida Atlantic?
That would be a legitimate concern, if not for the fact that Mark Dantonio simply won't allow it to happen.
Dantonio is all business, and won't allow his players to take their eyes off the ball.
Since the Spartans only return six starters on each side of the ball, it won't be difficult to remind many guys that they have a lot to prove.
Dantonio's crew has plenty of reasons to be confident, but that confidence won't be their downfall.
Nebraska is a very popular pick to win the Big Ten this year, and with good reason.
The Huskers are flat-out loaded on defense, led by DT Jared Crick. But what about the offense, particularly QB Taylor Martinez?
Martinez is in his second season as a starter, and his first was marred by inconsistency.
When he was good, he was very good. But there were games when he was quite bad—how about that 6-14-2 performance against South Dakota State (no, that's not a misprint)?
In addition, the Huskers have a tough Big Ten slate. They don't get to play Indiana or Purdue, and must play all of the league's serious title contenders.
Ohio State and Iowa have question marks at quarterback.
Both teams must break in new starters, albeit for vastly different reasons. Wisconsin brings in transfer Russell Wilson at quarterback, and many feel he'll be the league's best quarterback in 2011. We'll dispel that myth momentarily.
Of course, Michigan fans may feel their team has the best quarterback in the Big Ten, and they might be right. The Wolverines have finally—mercifully—sent Greg Robinson on his way, and if they can make significant strides on defense, they may be part of the title picture as well. But that's a lot to ask in just one year.
Hold it right there, you may say.
How is it possible to graduate Greg Jones and not be worried? Is it possible to lose a guy that was a three-time All-Big Ten pick and a two-time All-American without being overly concerned? Wait, it gets worse. Eric Gordon, MSU's second-leading tackler last year, has also graduated.
The losses are overstated? Well, yes.
Reinforcements are on the way. Depending on who you ask, Denicos Allen or Chris Norman will be breakout players at linebacker this year. Allen is a tad undersized, but is certainly a better athlete than Gordon.
Norman was highly recruited coming out of high school and his time to shine is now. With two seasons under his belt, Norman is now out of Jones' shadow. Norman's 59 tackles in 2010 were good for sixth on the team; not bad for a guy who wasn't a three-down player last year.
Max Bullough will man the middle for the Spartans, and at 6'3", 240 pounds, he's got prototypical size for the position.
The third-generation Spartan has football in his blood and earned some valuable experience in 2010. He's wet behind the ears, but he has the pedigree to have a productive career.
Mark Dantonio is the best thing to happen to MSU football in a very long time.
Dantonio embraced the rivalry between MSU and Michigan immediately. He made no bones about the fact MSU had to beat its in-state rivals if the Spartans wanted to be taken seriously.
Coach D's now-famous "the pride comes before the fall" quote has proven (with some help from Rich Rodriguez) to be right on the money. The Spartans have defeated Michigan three times in a row for the first time since 1965-67.
How gutsy was the "Little Giants" fake field-goal call in overtime against Notre Dame last fall?
Down three points after the Irish kicked a field goal on their first possession, the Spartans faced 4th and forever with a kicker (Dan Conroy) in his first pressure situation as a Spartan. You know what happened next: Punter Aaron Bates threw a game-winning TD to Charlie Gantt, and MSU defeated the Irish.
But there's more to it than that.
If that play had failed, Dantonio would have been mocked, ripped, parodied and generally destroyed by the media. Not only that, but it's situations just like that in the past where MSU has fallen apart and lost the game.
And then the next game. And the game after that, on the way to a 5-7 season. Not this time, though. Not under this coach.
Has there ever been a Spartan who received less credit for being really good than Kirk Cousins?
His detractors point to games such as the 2009 loss to Notre Dame when Cousins threw an unsightly, game-losing interception off his back foot. Or the game at Iowa in 2010, when Cousins and his teammates came up miles short.
But what about the flawless second half against Notre Dame in 2010? Remember the comeback at Northwestern last year, when Cousins threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns?
Does anyone recall Michigan State's game against Purdue last year? Cousins threw a pick-six in the first quarter, but he didn't fold. He didn't play particularly well until the fourth quarter, when—with some help from the defense and special teams—he threw for two touchdowns and ran for another as the Spartans came back from a 15-point deficit to beat the Boilermakers.
Cousins will be a senior this year. His career TD-to-INT numbers are a little better than 2-1, and while that's hardly eye-popping, a Mark Dantonio-coached team is going to preach balance. When Cousins needed to bail his team out last season, he did that more often than not.
Cousins has proven he is a winner, and when MSU wins a Big Ten title in 2011, he'll be the biggest reason why.