Michigan State is coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time in school history, but apparently not everyone is sold that the Spartans are among the Big Ten's elite.
In a media poll, Michigan received more than twice as many votes to win the Legends Division and head to the conference title game, despite the fact Michigan State has beaten its rival four straight seasons.
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However, sixth-year coach Mark Dantonio hasn't changed his team's goal -- reaching the Rose Bowl.
"It's always been our conversation in our locker room," he said. "I think you have to make your goals and you have to climb a ladder. The first thing that you have to do is you have to get to that championship game before you can go to the Rose Bowl. We were able to do that last year. If you're fortunate enough to get to the Rose Bowl, that's when the conversation of a national championship is going to come into play. And so we'll let things play out."
There is no doubt the Spartans will find out early if they have what it takes to be in the national championship hunt. They open the season at home against Boise State and also host Notre Dame within the first three weeks of the season before jumping into Big Ten play by hosting Ohio State.
However, things get no easier in Big Ten play and Michigan State's season could be determined in a three-game stretch beginning in late October with games at Michigan, at Wisconsin and home against Nebraska.
The Spartans will likely be relying on a dominant defense and a stout running game as they break in a new quarterback and an entirely new crop of wide receivers in their quest to return to the Big Ten championship game.
"I think the key in everything is having great chemistry and maintaining your approach and your plan," Dantonio said. "So our plan will be always to be the very best that we can be and compete at the highest level we can, and to do it with a certain amount of effort, toughness, and knowledge. That's been the plan since we've gotten there. That's how we'll continue to carry it."
HEAD COACH: Mark Dantonio, sixth season at Michigan State, 44-22 at Michigan State, 62-39 overall as head coach.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Andrew Maxwell -- The junior finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to replace Kirk Cousins, the three-year starter who left Michigan State as the career leader in passing yards, touchdown passes and passing efficiency. But Maxwell, an Elite 11 quarterback who stands 6-foot-3, enters his fourth season in the program and holds many of the same attributes as Cousins -- a strong and accurate arm, leadership skills and smarts. Maxwell has been patient and the Spartans are expecting it to pay off, however his playing time has been limited as he has attempted only 51 passes in his career. A solid running game and one of the nation's top defenses should allow Maxwell to ease into the starting role, but his development could be the key to the entire season for the Spartans.
BREAKOUT STAR: DE William Gholston -- An imposing physical presence at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, Gholston showed to the college football world just what he could become in a dominating Outback Bowl performance against Georgia. He had five tackles for loss and two sacks in Michigan State's triple-overtime victory and cemented his place among the rising stars in the game. Gholston was second-team All-Big Ten as a sophomore, recording 70 tackles, including 16 for loss. He was voted by the media as the preseason defensive MVP and shows up on most early NFL Draft boards as a No. 1 pick.
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NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR DeAnthony Arnett -- The Spartans lost three senior receivers, including all-time leader in receptions and yards B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin to the NFL. A talented group of freshmen will be in the mix to fill the void, but the Tennessee transfer could be the one step forward. Arnett caught 24 passes for 242 and two touchdowns for the Volunteers before transferring to be near his ailing father. The NCAA granted him a residence waiver, making him eligible immediately and a likely candidate to be one of Andrew Maxwell's favorite targets.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: With a new quarterback at the helm, expect the Spartans to rely heavily on their running game and defense, one of the best in the country a season ago. There is little doubt that Maxwell will have his share of growing pains in his first season as a starter, so the more the running game and defense can ease that transition the better. Junior running back Le'Veon Bell is poised for a breakout season behind an experienced offensive line while the defense is loaded with playmakers. The linebacking corps -- featuring Max Bullough (89 tackles), Denicos Allen (11 sacks) and Chris Norman (76 tackles) -- is the heart and soul of the defense while defensive ends Gholston and Marcus Rush bookend a deep defensive front. Cornerbacks Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard are two of the best cover men in the conference and safety Isaiah Lewis is the big hitter.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Quarterback is the obvious choice here, but Dantonio admits he is perfectly comfortable with Maxwell, calling him the "perfect quarterback for the situation." However, Dantonio was not afraid to admit that wide receiver is another story. As many as 10-12 players could be in the mix to fill the void left by three seniors who left along with Cousins. There is plenty of talent, it's just a matter of which players will step to the front. Bennie Fowler has the most experience, but he is coming off a foot injury, and sophomore Tony Lippett spent most of his time last season on defense. Andre Sims Jr. was redshirted last season but has drawn plenty of early praise. After that, it is up to a large group of true freshmen, including top recruit Aaron Burbridge, the No. 1 player in the state of Michigan. Transfer DeAnthony Arnett will also fight for playing time. "It's a competitive situation," Dantonio said. "A lot of these guys are in the same boat. It's gonna be exciting to watch."
-- Several players are making position switches, none bigger than redshirt freshman Lawrence Thomas. The blue-chip recruit missed most of last season and the spring with a shoulder injury and now moves from linebacker to defensive end. At 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds, he could be a destructive force on the edge.
-- Other key position changes include Denzel Drone, who went from defensive end to tight end; Tyler Hoover, who went from defensive end to defensive tackle; and Taylor Calero, who went from defensive end to fullback. Also defensive back Dana Dixon decided to transfer to Division II Grand Valley State.
-- Just two weeks before camp, the Spartans received the news that long snapper Steve Moore fractured his C4 vertebrae in a diving accident. Moore will recover, but his playing days are likely over. That leaves the snapping duties to true freshman Taybor Pepper