“You will be the ones.” That is what Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio said to his team before the start of the 2013 season. What Coach Dantonio was referring to of course was snapping the Spartans long Rose Bowl drought and getting to Pasadena for the first time in 26 years. It turns out that he was correct, they were “the ones.” Not only did the 2013 Spartans set a school record with 13 wins, they beat undefeated Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship and went into Pasadena and won the Rose Bowl. The question now is, where do they go from here?
It is one thing to have a flash in the pan season every 25 years or so, it is another thing entirely to build a consistent winning program. When Mark Dantonio came to East Lansing in 2007 he said he wanted to change the culture around the program and win championships, both Big Ten and beyond. After his seventh season at the helm of MSU, Dantonio had accomplished most of those goals. He made it clear however, that this was still just a step on the road to something bigger.
The key to being a great program is sustained success. That is what the Spartans are searching for in the upcoming 2014 season. Despite all the success Dantonio has had at Michigan State there has still been seasons of regression when it looked like things were building. After contending for the Big Ten and making a New Year’s Day bowl in 2008 the Spartans went 6-6 the next year and lost their bowl game to finish the season with a losing record. After a heartbreaking loss in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game in 2011 the Spartans once again went 6-6 in 2012 and were just 3-5 in conference play.
Both of those 6-6 seasons corresponded with new quarterbacks taking over the team, Kirk Cousins in 2009 and Andrew Maxwell in 2012. This year is different. Connor Cook will be in his second season as the starting QB and he knows coming in that it is his team from the get-go. While the Spartans have lost some key players from their top ranked defense of a year ago many believe that they will be able to slide in new pieces and not miss a beat. That is what great programs do — they don’t rebuild, they reload.
That is the test for Coach Dantonio and his squad in 2014 — can they reload and pick up where they left off last year? Winning is great, but it also creates higher expectations. MSU fans have no intention of waiting another quarter century to get back to Pasadena and Mark Dantonio has his sights set higher. Once you start throwing around the idea of playing for a National Championship, it’s hard to turn back.
Michigan State’s 2014 season will not and should not be judged solely on if they make it to the new College Football Playoff. It will instead be judged on whether or not they are in contention for championships, both national and Big Ten. Great programs don’t win it all every year. They don’t even win their conference every year. But winning programs are always in the hunt. And that is where Michigan State needs to be moving forwards, in the hunt.
Last year was a magical ride for the Spartans, and many people would say that they are playing with house money this year. Mark Dantonio is not one of them and I believe most of the 70,000 plus that pack Spartan Stadium on Saturdays aren’t either. Success breeds expectations and this year’s team comes in with a lot of them. Football doesn’t have long term memory. A great win one week can be erased by a bad loss the next and a great season one year can be forgotten just as quickly if the follow up is flat. Last year’s team were “the ones” to break the Rose Bowl drought but this year’s team can be “the ones” to take Michigan State to the next level.