Spartans believe: Why not us?

Mark Dantonio has achieved many of the goals he set when he first came to Michigan State.

Kirby Lee/Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has said it several times: "Why not us?"

Dantonio was responding to questions about whether his Spartans should be considered in the national-championship conversation.

Now that the Spartans have defeated the Stanford Cardinal in the Rose Bowl and finished the season ranked third in the polls, that question will certainly come up again.

Had the four-team playoff been in effect this season instead of next, the Spartans might have been able to answer that question on the field.

"Watching (Monday) night’s game, you had the feeling like we could hang in there, and you feel like the gap has closed a little bit in terms of the elite programs in the country," Dantonio said before the MSU-Ohio State basketball game Tuesday. "Great football game, right down to the wire. It was great to be one of the BCS teams competing, and we felt like we belonged."

Having started the season outside the top 25, the Spartans who won the Rose Bowl had to fight their way to the top level of the polls.

The 2014 Spartans will be ranked among the top teams going into the season, bringing greater expectations.

Dantonio doesn’t shy away from those expectations and the level of scrutiny that goes along with that.

"First of all, you’re very goal-oriented as a program and as people," Dantonio said. "We strived to make this goal, and it’s taken seven years to get here.

The next step is what we do with these opportunities. You just don’t stand still.

Mark Dantonio

"The next step is what we do with these opportunities. You just don’t stand still. Nobody ever stands still."

Dantonio has achieved many of the goals he set when he first came to Michigan State. Perhaps most important, he’s changed the culture.

No longer are the Spartans willing to settle for being Michigan’s "Little Brother."

Just as Dantonio believes his team belongs among the nation’s best teams, so do his players.

"We can play with the elite teams," sophomore defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun told Sports Illustrated. "We’re able to win Rose Bowls and win national championships. That’s the next step for us.

"The national championship is something we’re going to strive for next year."

Calhoun will play for the Spartans next season, but the top-ranked defense will lose six of their starters.

The Spartans got a glimpse of life without senior captain and middle linebacker Max Bullough, who was suspended for violating team rules and didn’t play in the Rose Bowl.

In stepped senior Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris, who combined for the signature fourth-down stop to clinch the Rose Bowl victory.

The Spartans also lose linebacker Denicos Allen, defensive linemen Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover, safety Isaiah Lewis and Jim Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard.

Dennard was complemented at cornerback by Trae Waynes, and Dennard has said he believes Waynes could top his accomplishments.

Although you can’t expect someone to come in and play at the same level as Dennard, defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett told the Lansing State Journal he expects a four-man competition among Darian Hicks, Arjen Colquhoun, Jermaine Edmondson and Ezra Robinson.

At safety, Kurtis Drummond will be a senior.

R.J. Williamson was the nickel back all season, and he or redshirt freshman Demetrious Cox will take Lewis’ spot.

At linebacker, Harris, Ed Davis and Riley Bullough, Max’s younger brother, are all possible candidates to start next season. Taiwan Jones will be the only returning starter at linebacker.

If defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who won the Broyles Award as the country’s top assistant coach, doesn’t leave for a head coaching job, there’s no reason to think that the defense will take a step back.

MSU’s offense took a while to get traction, but things finally fell into place when sophomore quarterback Connor Cook and junior running Jeremy Langford established themselves as starters.

Both of those players will return, so the offense should start off much more quickly than it did this past season.

At receiver, Bennie Fowler has decided not to try for a sixth season of eligibility, but the cupboard isn’t bare.

Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery will be seniors, Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings Jr. will be juniors, and all four played quite a bit.

The offensive line loses guards Blake Treadwell and Dan France, and right tackle Fou Fonoti.

Travis Jackson, best known for his "Yes!" chant and post-win locker-room dancing, will likely slot into one of the guard spots as a senior.

Donavon Clark could move from left tackle to the other guard spot. Or Connor Kruse or redshirt freshmen Zach Higgins and Benny McGowan might fight for that role. Jack Allen will start at center.

Dantonio won’t have much to worry about with his special teams. Kicker Michael Geiger will be just a sophomore and accomplished punter Mike Sadler will be a senior.

No doubt Dantonio will have a few more trick plays featuring Sadler.

The Spartans are also certain to pick up some more players with their next recruiting class — probably some overlooked two-star recruits like Dennard — who will develop into stars.

It could be those players who help take the Spartans to the next level.

"You’re constantly doing the next thing," Dantonio said. "When you talk to recruits, you’re thinking about next year — you think about who’s coming back, you’re thinking about who’s going to play in what position, and how you’re going to make some moves. You’re trying to finish things you’ve started.

"In the big scheme of things, are we finished? No, we’re not finished."