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THE SPARTANS TOOK A STEP BACK IN 2009. AFTER SEEING THEIR win total rise the last two seasons under Mark Dantonio, they dropped to 6-7 in a season to forget. They fell in the final seconds to Central Michigan in Week 2, which was the first of three games they lost by a combined total of 13 points. Last December eight players were suspended after a brawl at a campus residence hall. (Four of those players are back and practiced this spring.) To finish the season, Michigan State squandered a fourth-quarter lead in the Alamo Bowl in a heartbreaking 41-31 loss to Texas Tech.
The Spartans may have been the Big Ten's biggest underachievers, but this year they return a little wiser and with enough talent to contend for their first conference title since 1990. "We have the pieces in place," says Dantonio, who took over the program before the 2007 season. "The spring was tremendously positive, and we're ready to move forward."
Thirteen starters return, including seven to an offense that averaged 29.7 points, second in the conference. "We have a chance to have a very good offense," says Dantonio. The strength of the team will be one of the most devastating air attacks in the conference. A year ago junior quarterback Kirk Cousins won the starting job and emerged as a steady performer, with a pass-efficiency rating of 142.6 (third best in the Big Ten). Cousins will have a plethora of targets, including senior Mark Dell (20 of his 26 catches were for either a first down or a touchdown); juniors B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin (the duo combined for 1,082 receiving yards); and the athletic Keith Nichol, a converted quarterback.
Last year's inconsistency can be blamed on a lack of leadership, but Dantonio doesn't expect that to be the case this season. "The players have grown up and matured," he says. "Kirk has set the tone in practices and knows that everyone's looking to him. He's ready for the challenge."
The biggest question facing Michigan State will be its defense. The Spartans hope that a switch to a 3-4 set will improve a unit that ranked seventh in the conference with 26.3 points allowed. If the defense does get better, Michigan State could be a real sleeper in the Big Ten. "Expectations here are rising," says Dantonio. "We've gone to three straight bowl games, but we expect more now."
COACH Mark Dantonio (4th year)
22-17 (13-11 in Big Ten)