They whipped Wisconsin in East Lansing, steamrollered Michigan in Ann Arbor and flattened Penn State in State College on their way to a school-record 11 wins and a share of the Big Ten title. Last season the Spartans arrived as a national power—or so it seemed until a 49--7 humbling by Alabama in the Capital One Bowl. "We're not an elite program, at least not yet," says Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, whose teams have gone 33--19 in his four years at the helm. "The bowl-game loss, and how we lost, put things in perspective and reminded us that when you climb one mountain, there's another one."
For the Spartans to take the next step as a program, including a first trip to the Rose Bowl in 23 years, they need their offensive line to grow up fast (three starters graduated) and they need junior running back Edwin Baker to build on an impressive 2010 season, in which he rushed for 1,201 yards and 13 touchdowns. But the fate of the Spartans rests most of all with senior quarterback Kirk Cousins, who had one of the best statistical seasons in Spartans history in 2010 but wilted in the biggest games: He tossed three interceptions in a 37--6 loss to Iowa with the outright Big Ten title on the line and passed for a season-low 120 yards against the Crimson Tide.
With the toughest road schedule in the conference (trips to South Bend, Columbus, Lincoln, Iowa City and Evanston) the Spartans will lean on their veteran quarterback. "There's no substitute for playing in environments like [those], and that's where Kirk comes in with his leadership," says Dantonio. New offensive coordinator Dan Roushar plans to open up the playbook to take advantage of speedy receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. "We want to throw it more downfield early on downs and keep teams guessing," says Cousins.
Cousins spent his spring break in Southern California working on his footwork with quarterback guru Bob Johnson. During his stay he made a pilgrimage to the Rose Bowl. Cousins snapped a photo on his phone and sent it to Dantonio. The picture said it all: For Michigan State, it's Rose Bowl or bust.
2 Youngstown State
10 Florida Atlantic
17 at Notre Dame
24 Central Michigan
1 at Ohio State
29 at Nebraska
12 at Iowa
26 at Northwestern
The 5'9", 210-pound speedster rushed for 1,201 yards and 13 TDs in his first season as a starter.
The Spartans' most experienced lineman (36 starts) is on the watch lists for the Lombardi and Outland awards.
A likely top 10 pick in the 2012 NFL draft, he had 40 tackles and four sacks last season.
Conference Big Ten
Coach Mark Dantonio (5th year)
2010 Record 11--2 (7--1 in Big Ten)
Final AP Rank 14
Returning Starters 13
Offense 7, Defense 6
JOHN BIEVER (COUSINS)
Cousins, who put up eye-popping numbers in 2010 and improved his footwork in the off-season, must shed a reputation for wilting in his team's biggest games.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (WORTHY)