"I think going into that game there wasn't 100 percent, I don't know if every kid in that room believed how special that team could be," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "There were enough of us, but I know leaving that locker room they could be. There was no doubt leaving they could be a good football team.
"When you are dealing with 18-to-22-year-old kids, you can say certain things and try and ingrain it in them, but until they first-hand see how special they can be, they don't realize it. They took the bad of that day and turned it into good."
Co-Big Ten Champions with UW last season, Michigan State started 8-0 and looked like world beaters, but gave up at least 27 points in four of its final six games, needed a double-digit comeback to beat an injury-plagued Purdue team at home and was embarrassed at Iowa and against Alabama in their bowl game.
"What we talked to our football team about is we climbed one mountain, you think you're getting to the top of the mountain, you find out there's another mountain to climb as well," head coach Mark Dantonio said. "When you look at our football team, how we performed in the bowl game, we took a step backward. Our focus is on what we can do to improve the situation and what we can do."
Next to Wisconsin returning plenty of talent from its Rose Bowl season, Michigan State might be the most loaded returning in the conference and the prime example can be found under center. Two-time team captain Kirk Cousins is back, and the senior completed 66.9 percent of his passes last season and threw for 2,825 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Against Wisconsin last season, Cousins, who is Has compiled a 16-9 record in two seasons as the starting quarterback, completed 20 of 29 passes for 269 yards and three touchdowns, helping MSU go 9 for 18 on third downs and 2 for 3 on fourth down.
"Can Kirk Cousins get better? Absolutely," Dantonio said. "Offensively when you look at our football team very quickly, I think you always have to start with the quarterback position. Kirk Cousins is a young man that not only is he an outstanding football player on the field, but he brings a sense of calm and confidence to our football team, got great game management skills. Maybe more importantly than that, he has great locker room management."
Then there's the loaded backfield, with Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper all working in a dangerous rotation, as well as B.J. Cunningham (who is four catches away from being the all-time leading receiver at the school), Keith Nichol and Keshawn Martin providing familiar receiving targets for Cousins.
Michigan State thrives on its ground game. Averaging 152.2 yards on the ground last season, the Spartans faltered when their talented group couldn't find their footing, managing 31 rushing yards (1.6 per carry) in the loss to Iowa and minus-48 yards (-1.7 per carry) in the loss to Alabama.
"Obviously, Edwin Baker, is a phenomenal player," said Dantonio, who is hoping his offense can succeed despite losing three offensive line starters. "I think the other guys are very, very good as well. I can see them having breakout years. If you look at 2009, Larry Caper was the featured guy. All those guys have the ability there and I think that's what makes us strong in that area. We have depth."
The defense is where Michigan State's weakness currently resides. The Spartans return a solid defensive line, but they were 90th in the nation in sacks and 91st in tackles for loss. The pass rush might not be there right away, seeing as the Spartans lost two standout linebackers – All-American Greg Jones and Eric Gordon – who were the team's two leading tacklers.
"Defensively we're a young football team," Dantonio said. "We have two seniors in our top 22 players, but I do think we bring a blend of experience there. Jerel Worthy anchors our defensive line. We have a lot of experience up there, we have numbers. Our linebacker position, we're going to miss Greg Jones, Eric Gordon certainly, but I think we've got very good players coming back. We won't lose one player, all our underclassmen."
Michigan State has some holes to fill defensively, but the Spartans already have one advantage on Wisconsin for the team's prime-time kickoff. MSU hasn't lost to UW at home since 2002, and they are still bitter that the Badgers went to the Rose Bowl instead of them.
Instead of griping about it, some Spartans can be found wearing t-shirts that either say "Humble but Hungry" or "P4RB." P4RB stands for Prepare For Rose Bowl.
"When you look at our football team, you have to get breaks in close games, that's obvious, make great decisions as players and coaches," Dantonio said. "I think you've got to be able to handle adversity as you move through every single game. That's leadership and chemistry. We had that last year. That still exists on our football team and in our locker room.
"When you talk about Michigan State right now, we have some very good players coming back, but if you had to ask me what was the strength of our team last year, what's the strength of our team this year, right now it's the chemistry as a group of people, a belief as a group of people that propels us."
Overall Record: Michigan State leads 28-21-0
Record in East Lansing: Michigan State leads 15-7-0
Last Meeting: Michigan State won, 34-24, in East Lansing in 2010