Dantonio, Michigan State in national title discussion again
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) After everything Michigan State has accomplished over the past few seasons, there is always some reminder of unfinished business.
Last season, the Spartans went 11-2, finished in a tie at No. 5 in the final AP poll and trounced rival Michigan for the sixth time in seven years. Yet their two defeats stood out, since they were against Ohio State and Oregon - the teams that ended up playing for the national championship.
Michigan State was that close.
''We didn't succeed in those two games so we didn't reach our goals, and that's the bottom line,'' coach Mark Dantonio said. ''Now, goals always change. I was very proud of our football team in terms of how we reacted after those two losses because we regathered ourselves.''
By any measure, this is one of the best stretches in the history of the Michigan State program, yet the Spartans remain under the radar to an extent. National champion Ohio State looms one state to the south, and Jim Harbaugh has taken over at Michigan, ready to challenge Michigan State in a rivalry that the Spartans have turned on its head.
In other words, that chip on Michigan State's shoulder isn't going anywhere any time soon.
''I think you compete against yourself and what you've done already, and we try and reach new heights,'' Dantonio said. ''If you look at our basketball program, I don't think coach (Tom) Izzo has ever been satisfied. I don't think that's the makeup of a coach or the program, or any real program, any championship-type program or program that's won a lot successively.''
The Spartans look loaded again in 2015 after quarterback Connor Cook and defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun both decided to return instead of going to the NFL.
Michigan State opens the season at Western Michigan on Sept. 4, but the schedule is highlighted by the same two opponents as last year. The Spartans host Oregon on Sept. 12 and play at Ohio State on Nov. 21.
Here are a few more things to watch at Michigan State this season:
COOK'S BID: As a fifth-year senior playing quarterback for a national championship contender, Cook is almost automatically in the Heisman Trophy discussion, at least at the start of the season. Cook threw for 3,214 yards last season, and over the past two years, he's thrown for 46 touchdowns with only 14 interceptions.
NARDUZZI'S DEPARTURE: Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi left to take the head coaching job at Pittsburgh. The Spartans promoted Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel as co-coordinators in Narduzzi's place. As good as Michigan State's defense has been over the past few seasons, the Spartans couldn't shut down everybody in 2014. Michigan State gave up 46 points in the loss to Oregon, 49 to Ohio State and then 41 in a Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor.
KEY INJURY: The Spartans already faced some adversity this month when linebacker Ed Davis went down with a season-ending knee injury. Davis had 11 sacks over the last two years.
RUNNING GAME: Michigan State's top two rushers last season were both seniors, so the Spartans will need players to step up in the backfield. Delton Williams averaged 5.9 yards on 54 carries last season. Sophomore Gerald Holmes was listed atop the preseason depth chart along with redshirt freshman Madre London, but Holmes had only 15 carries in 2014.
POWER UP FRONT: The Spartans return four starters on the offensive line, including seniors Jack Allen and Donavon Clark and 6-foot-6 junior tackle Jack Conklin.