As some know, I've been watching Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio since he took over the University of Cincinnati football program for the 2004 football season. I've seen his rise to elite coaching status and I'm not surprised by what he's done at Michigan State since his arrival in November of 2006.
Twelve years is a long time to watch a head coach develop two programs sitting at the bottom that have risen to two winning programs over the years.
As Spartan fans have learned, Mark Dantonio is a builder of not only winning football teams but also of young men who learn how to work and reach higher than those on the outside feel possible.
I still remember the 48-hour period when Mark made the decision to leave Cincinnati for Michigan State and knew right away he'd build a winning program not only in the Big Ten but on a national scale. I knew it would not happen overnight, but had watched his staff recruit players others didn't want and build a program on toughness and a great work ethic.
After Dantonio left for East Lansing, I watched from afar until asked to cover the Spartans during the 2010. By that time Dantonio had gone 22-17 but had lost three bowl games. I was able to attend the Alamo Bowl as I was in San Antonio for the U.S. Army All-American practices and game. It was then that I started to see small pieces of the puzzle really start to come together.
In the spring of 2010 prior to agreeing to cover MSU, I was given the chance to watch the Spartans during a spring practice and left impressed as I saw for the first time the overall pieces and bigger picture coming together of the MSU program you see today.
During the summer of 2010, I did crystal ball prediction stories on each of the Spartans 2010 games and had the Green and White going undefeated. While I took a lot of heat from people outside of the Spartans fan base and even from many die-hard Spartans, I stood my ground knowing the Spartans could be special.
With a play like “Little Giants” to beat Notre Dame and crushing Michigan 34-17, people started to believe what I predicted that summer. In the end the Spartans would lose to Iowa on the road (hate MSU games on Halloween weekend) and lose again in the Capital One Bowl against Alabama. Both losses would be additional pieces to the Dantonio Spartans with the best yet to come.
The next two years went up and down as the Spartans went 11-3 in 2011 and then fall back to 7-6 in 2012. Prior to the start of the 2013 season I stepped away from game coverage but never stopped watching as the Spartans won a Big Ten Championship Game against Ohio State, Rose Bowl against Stanford and Cotton Bowl against Baylor in dramatic fashion.
That brings us to 2015 and what could be another magical year as there is more talent on the Spartans roster now than at any time since Mark Dantonio took over the program.
What do I see happening this fall?
I'm not calling for Michigan State to win a National Championship in 2015. Can they reach the College Football Playoffs and the final game? Yes! I would not be surprised if they do. But there are three questions in my mind that effect both sides of the football.
Running back depth is great but experience is lacked. If the Spartans had not loss Delton Williams during the spring I would be more optimistic about the position. There could be growing pains early at the biggest test will come in Week Two against Oregon. The performance of the group in this game will tell us more on where the Spartans stand.
The secondary, like the running backs are young and inexperienced. They will get tested in Week One against Western Michigan and really tested in Week Two. We'll know more about the group as a whole after the first two games of the season. Don't get me wrong, I really like the talent here and feel they can be great, but it is untested at this time.
Big road games will play a part in the overall success. Everyone is talking about the Spartans and Ohio State in late November, however two weeks before the Buckeyes is a road game against Nebraska and in October the Spartans have to go down the road to play Michigan. We'll learn more about MSU against Michigan, but will really know more about the direction of this season when they head to Husker land.
SEASON PLAYS OUT IN THREE PARTS
The regular football season plays out in three parts. I look at each part and give you my thoughts here.
PART ONE: The first part of the 2015 season will have the Spartans playing four teams with three games at home and the season opener just down the road with a major lean to being almost a home game.
There should be no problems in beating Western Michigan and Central Michigan. Air Force brings a different challenge because of the type of offense they run but is a game MSU should win. That leaves Oregon as the biggest test with a national audience watching to see if the Spartans are a Top Five program. We talked about the Spartans having questions but so do the Ducks. So we'll go with the home team and see part one of the season ending with MSU going 4-0 and looking strong.
PART TWO: The next part has four more games with two at home and two on the road. Purdue comes to Spartan Stadium and this is a team MSU can not over look. The Boilermakers are not a good football team and should be a win. But they can not overlook anyone with all eyes on them. The next two games are road games with a Rutgers program with many off field issues. I give the Spartans a win. The media has talked more about Michigan than Michigan State and Mark Dantonio knows this will be a physical game. He'll have his team ready and despite all the hype, MSU leaves with another win over the Wolverines. Then the game that could be closer than people think at this time. Indiana has shown they can throw the football and this will be a major test of where the Spartans secondary stands. The Spartans will win but there could be some fireworks.
PART THREE: The final phase of the 2015 season is the most important as a road game at Nebraska gets things underway. By this time the Huskers will know who they are and like in years past, this will be a hard fought contest. You have to go with MSU for the win, but fans will be on the edge of their seats. Maryland comes to East Lansing and should leave with a loss and then the game everyone is talking about will take place as the Spartans head to Columbus to battle Ohio State. Will this game play out like last years? Or does Michigan State return the favor? Flip a coin and sit back and enjoy as a win by the Spartans should have them in position for the Big Ten Championship game. To end the regular season Penn State heads to Spartan land looking to spoil the Spartans success. Do I see it happening? It could as the Spartans will be coming off an extremely high from beating Ohio State or extremely low from losing to the Buckeyes.
To close it out I can see the Spartans running the table and making the Final Four of college football. But I could also see them losing one game and making a trip back to the Rose Bowl. Will the Spartans reach higher in 2015? Sit back and watch it unfold as it should be an exciting year of Michigan State football here at Spartan Digest.