EAST LANSING, Mich. -- For all Michigan State has accomplished under Mark Dantonio -- the wins over Michigan, a share of the 2010 Big Ten title, a pair of thrilling finishes on national television that will be remembered for generations -- there's still one step that has eluded the Spartans.
Michigan State hasn't played in the Rose Bowl since 1988, and last season brought the Spartans no closer to that goal. They went 7-6, with almost every conference game coming down to the wire. If Michigan State can turn a few of those close losses into wins, a league title isn't that farfetched, but there's plenty of room for improvement, especially on offense.
"We came into the last season with a very limited amount of experience on offense, at the quarterback position, at the wide receiver position," said Dantonio, who is entering his seventh season as the Spartans' coach. "We came in with an experienced defense and it showed. So we just need to pick all the pieces up, put them back in the puzzle, and move forward, and I think that's what we're doing."
Michigan State was among the favorites in the Big Ten at the beginning of last season, but a one-point loss to Ohio State and a double-overtime loss to Iowa knocked the Spartans off the pace early. They ended up barely making the postseason.
With quarterback Andrew Maxwell struggling at times in his first season as the starter, it was left to workhorse running back Le'Veon Bell to carry the offense. He did, to the tune of 1,793 yards on 382 carries, but then Bell decided to leave school early for the NFL draft.
In the Spartans' bowl game, Maxwell split time at quarterback with Connor Cook, adding an element of uncertainty to that situation going forward.
Five things to watch as Michigan State tries to end its Rose Bowl drought:
1. SOFT SCHEDULE?: Michigan State beat Wisconsin in the regular season each of the last three years -- then watched the Badgers play in the Rose Bowl each time. This year, Wisconsin isn't on the Spartans' schedule, and neither is Ohio State. On top of that, Michigan State gets to play Michigan at home. The Spartans had won four straight over the Wolverines before losing last year in Ann Arbor.
2. IS MAXWELL THE MAN?: Maxwell completed only 52.5 percent of his passes last season, but in fairness, he was working with an inexperienced receiving corps. Still, it was Cook who led the winning drive in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Texas Christian. "The job's open right now," Maxwell said. "Every quarterback is fighting, clawing, scratching, trying to win the day every single day at practice, trying to be the best quarterback they can be."
3. BIG SHOES TO FILL: It would be unrealistic to expect any of Michigan State's running backs to match Bell's number of carries from a season ago. The question is whether, collectively, the Spartans can replace his production. Redshirt freshman Riley Bullough has been atop the depth chart at tailback, followed by 5-foot-8, 198-pound junior Nick Hill, who had all of 21 carries last season. Michigan State could have three fifth-year seniors starting on the offensive line, which should help.
4. NEXT IN LINE: When Jerel Worthy left Michigan State early to go to the NFL, William Gholston was ready to anchor the defensive line. Now Gholston has turned pro, but the Spartans have proven they can reload on defense while maintaining an effective front at the line of scrimmage. Defensive end Marcus Rush had a couple sacks last year, and he could be ready to make a bigger impact.
5. GETTING THE BOUNCES: Michigan State beat Notre Dame in 2010 on a fake field goal in overtime, and the Spartans edged Wisconsin the following year on a `Hail Mary' on the game's final play. Those two games are now firmly a part of Michigan State lore, but last season, the Spartans lost five games by a combined 13 points. With a stingy defense and an offense still trying to find its footing, Michigan State could be on its way to another season full of close games. How the Spartans perform in them should go a long way toward determining if they can make a run at a league title.
Predicted finish in the Big Ten Legends Division: Third.