The least you should know about the 2011 Spartans. Part of Big Ten Week.
• We're still here. Don't let Michigan State's 49-7 loss to Alabama fool you. That was the effort of a team that thought it's 11-1 record, complete with a win over Wisconsin, was good enough to secure a BCS bowl bid. It wasn't and the disappointment of being left out of the conversation showed in the Capital One Bowl.
Now, the Spartans have an opportunity to turn that frustration into fulfillment this year as they return a team that will no doubt be in contention for their second consecutive conference title.
2010 was no fluke. After years of scraping by, Michigan State finally put all the pieces together and had their first double-digit win season since going 10-2 in 1999. And now that the Spartans know what winning feels like, they're not turning back.
The Spartans return 12 players, including quarterback Kirk Cousins, who should be one of the top signal callers in the conference. The biggest obstacle to a successful season will be the schedule, which is brutal. The Spartans have to travel to Notre Dame, Ohio State and Nebraska this year and play Wisconsin at home. Some of Michigan State's success a year ago was because of a fortuitous schedule, but if it can get through this year's gauntlet relatively unscathed, it bodes well for the Spartans reaching their first BCS bowl and first major bowl since the Rose Bowl in 1988.
• Putting it all on the line, part one. Michigan State's skill positions are as good as any other team in the league right now with Cousins, 1,000-yard back Edwin Baker and top receiver B.J. Cunningham all returning. But where the Spartans fall short is on the offensive line. They have to replace starters at center and both tackle positions, but also have shifted a lot of talented and athletic players from the defensive side of the ball to fill those holes. Left guard Joel Foreman and right guard Chris McDonald will anchor the line while former defensive lineman Dan France should be the left tackle. Freshmen Travis Jackson and Skyler Schofner will fill the other two holes making for an interesting mix up front.
• All in the family. Kirk Cousins is the straw that stirs the drink. His performance this year will determine whether the Spartans are able to have back-to-back double-digit winning seasons for the first time in school history. Cousins threw for 2,825 yards and 20 touchdowns last year while throwing just 10 interceptions. He has a talented wide receiver corps starting with Cunningham, who needs just 10 more catches to be Michigan State's al-time receiver. Keshawn martin has proven to be one of the Big Ten's best in all-purpose yardage and Bennie Fowler showed flashes of his athleticism throughout the year. But Cousins has to be better than he was a year ago if he wants the Spartans to be great especially with a wicked schedule ahead.
• Putting it all on the line, part two. Many believe this could be the best defensive line in coach mark Dantonio's tenure, especially after the way it disrupted Cousins during the spring. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy anchors the line after leading the team with four sacks a year ago. He also had eight tackles for loss. Tyler Hoover and William Gholston are both speedy and physical and will anchor the ends of the line, while Anthony Rashad While helps hold down the interior. Michigan State would not have sent a handful of players from defense to offense if it didn't believe it had the starters and the depth to be one of the premier defenses in the Big Ten.