To fully appreciate what Michigan State accomplished last season, you have to look past the blasting of Michigan in November, the high-profile takedown of Ohio State in December and the physical Rose Bowl against Stanford in January. You have to go all the way back to the beginning, to the end of August and early September. You have to remember the misery.
The Spartans couldn't settle on a quarterback, their receivers still couldn't catch passes after a rough 2012 and a viable replacement for Le'Veon Bell at running back had not yet emerged. For a while, it looked like they were among the worst offensive teams in all of college football, that they were on a track toward a level of embarrassment similar to four-win Florida and TCU. Their evolution into a capable-enough unit to win the Rose Bowl is one of the most improbable trajectories in recent history.
It feels clichéd, but there were several points during the season where Michigan State's defense really was the team's best offense: It scored points itself, and it gave the Spartans offense a chance by delivering consistently great field position. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun somehow scored 18 points in the first two games; actual offensive players scored 12. So while the Spartans had a plus-28 total scoring margin against Western Michigan and South Florida, they were the kind of nauseating wins that led one to believe a wake-up call was in store when conference play began and the opponents got stronger. You can only get away with winning on the back of defensive touchdowns against MAC teams for so long, hence a 17-13 loss to Notre Dame.
Optimism is not really commonplace at Michigan State anyway, given its history. An impending sense of doom seems to be a fact of life for Michigan State football, at least since going to the Rose Bowl after the 1987 season. Even Nick Saban was a near-.500 coach in East Lansing for his first four seasons, until he went 9-2 in 1999 -- and then instantly left, fleeing for LSU at the end of the 1999 season. Mostly, high hopes have been met with disappointment at the school of PUCKER, PUCKER, PUCKER. Good usually turns into bad. Unwatchable Michigan State teams don't turn into Rose Bowl champions.
As such, I'm no longer afraid to say it: I'm excited to watch Michigan State play football in September, which is a long way from last September.
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It seems strange, in retrospect, that Connor Cook had such a difficult time winning the quarterback job in the first place. After Cook replaced Andrew Maxwell late in the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against TCU, both were thrust into a four-man quarterback race throughout the 2013 offseason. A team that ranked 10th in the Big Ten in scoring in 2012 didn't look like it was getting any closer to finding a sense of direction in a frustrating quest to find another Kirk Cousins -- a very good player, but hardly Johnny Manziel or Cam Newton.
Maxwell won the job, despite completing only 52.5 percent of his passes in a frustrating 2012. He and Cook split snaps during the initial two weeks of dismal offensive output in 2013 before the coaches finally pushed aside their indecisiveness and chose to live or die with the younger Cook, who's now a junior. It's a decision that saved what turned into one of the best seasons in school history.
Cook is hardly perfect. He's not above making cringe-worthy decisions under pressure, like most college quarterbacks. But there's finally a sense that Michigan State's offense is capable of moving the ball consistently, of making big plays, of keeping defenses off-balance, of taking some pressure off of a defense that often had to do everything, including scoring points. Cook has good size at 6-foot-4 and 219 pounds. He has some mobility, with a knack for making throws on designed rollouts. He has enough arm strength to deliver on-target passes downfield. There were hiccups along the way that showed not all the kinks were ironed out -- a 14-0 win over Purdue and a 14-3 win over Minnesota, certainly -- but by the end of the season, the Michigan State offense no longer felt like the stiff, identity-less unit constantly working under a cloud of overwhelming negativity. The pressure eased off, and Michigan State morphed into a team that could matchup with anyone, because the offense was decent enough to complement the nation's best defense.
Cook ended up completing 58.7 percent of his passes for 2,755 yards with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions, and his average yards per attempt improved from month to month (5.1 in September, 8.2 in November). A formerly inept receiving corps is now fairly deep -- even with the loss of Bennie Fowler -- as Tony Lippett, Macgarrett Kings and Keith Mumphrey, among others, have all flashed potential. And whereas the Spartans had no idea who was going to play running back when the season began, former defensive back Jeremy Langford got better and better as the season went on, shouldering the load with 292 carries and rushing for more than 100 yards in the Spartans' last seven Big Ten games with an impressive blend of speed and workhorse ability between the tackles.
Throw in a solid offensive line anchored by center Jack Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin, and suddenly the offense led by co-coordinators Jim Bollman and Dave Warner has versatility, with a now-proven quarterback capable of moving the pocket, a running back who can do a little bit of everything and an intriguing group of receivers.
Make no mistake: This offense is not Baylor or Oregon or Auburn or Alabama, and it's not going to be. But if it can get back to 2011 levels, when it ranked 43rd in yards per play, then that might somehow be enough to make Michigan State favorites for a Big Ten repeat, and possibly a College Football Playoff bid.
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It would be so easy to assume that the Rose Bowl was an end point. That's at least what history would say, given the decades spent building this particular Clemson-like reputation for failing to meet expectations. It's not that far-fetched to think so, even ignoring history: Last year's defense was an all-time great group that led the nation in yards per play allowed, didn't allow 100 yards rushing in a game until mid-November and finished second in run defense and third in pass defense. The defense achieved results similar to Notre Dame in 2012's run to the national title game -- but like the Irish last year, there is important attrition to deal with as a result. Gone are several cornerstones, including cornerback Darqueze Dennard (a first-round pick), linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen (the team's leading tackler), safety Isaiah Lewis and defensive tackles Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds. It's a lot to lose, and repeating last year -- when everything broke right, on top of the incredible talent -- is next to impossible. Regression is inevitable.
Then again, is everyone so irreplaceable? The Spartans were just fine without the suspended Bullough in the Rose Bowl, and somehow only Dennard was actually drafted last month. Calhoun, cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Kurtis Drummond may all be coveted by the NFL and make for another great set of defensive anchors, alongside linebackers Ed Davis and Tawian Jones and veteran end Marcus Rush. And unlike that Notre Dame team, Michigan State didn't luck its way to a bunch of close wins, which is a common signal for regression the next year. All 12 of its wins before the Rose Bowl came by at least 10 points, despite a half-season of offensive ineptitude.
Coach Mark Dantonio is still overshadowed by Urban Meyer in the Big Ten -- naturally, given his championship past -- as well as the new presence of James Franklin. But alongside defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, he has found a way to get the most out of the talent on his team and build a Big Ten-style, defense-first team without being conservative. The defense is unfailingly aggressive. This is no bend-but-don't-break, wait-for-the-opponent-to-make-mistakes team. They force you to make mistakes, and they just needed an offense that was capable of taking advantage of those opportunities instead of shooting itself in the foot and stalling. By the end of the season, that's exactly what the Spartans had, and while the defense will be great but not quite as good, the offense should erase some more of that disparity in 2014.
Dantonio appears to have arrived to finish what Saban started. Forget that the Bobby Williams and John L. Smith eras ever happened, and Dantonio feels like the natural heir to Saban's East Lansing throne. It feels like positivity is actually possible.
It was a long road from seven punts in a half against Western Michigan to 332 passing yards against Stanford, a path that proved Michigan State is capable of turning the tables on its reputation for collapsing. A Big Ten repeat will be tough with Ohio State still loaded, but for once it feels like the Spartans have solidified their standing. Misery can wait.