Michigan State's recent football history is filled with peaks and canyons.
Seven times since its unbeaten 1966 season have the Spartans have won at least eight games. Only once — 1988 followed by 1989 — has Michigan State won more than six games the following season.
The Spartans won a school-record 11 games last season, and Coach Mark Dantonio hopes to end that trend this year.
"Well, the fact remains we've been to four bowl games in the last four years," Dantonio said. "We've lost some close games in '09, lost some close games in '07. But '08 and 2010 were what I would say good football seasons for us. So I think what we have to do is maintain what we've been able to accomplish and then build on some of the successes that we've had.
"Usually what I've seen is when we've had an inexperienced quarterback, we've lost a couple close games. When our quarterback has been experienced, again we'll have Kirk Cousins back this year for his third year, also as our captain, and our backups are also all back, you have a chance to have a good football team. That's sort of where we are."
Cousins returns as a starter after throwing for 2,825 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last year. Cousins started all 13 games and completed nearly 67 percent of his passes. He said off-season workouts are the key to the program sustaining success.
"What we have to do we've already been doing since we got back from the bowl game, that's to not rest on success, but work even harder, to keep investing in our season for next year," Cousins said. "Guys who had success last season aren't acting like they had success last season on the practice field, they're working hard, keeping an attitude of the humility. They're also staying hungry, ready to learn and coachable. When you have that, I fully expect us to sustain success next season."
Offensively the Spartans return their top two rushers in Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell, and two of their leading receivers in B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin.
The difficulties lie with defense, the team's strength from last season. Michigan State loses four of its top five leading tacklers, including long-time starting linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, safety Marcus Hyde and productive cornerback Chris L. Rucker. Dantonio has moved fullback TyQuan Hammock to linebacker and said a true freshman likely will play as well.
"I don't think you'll ever replace (Jones and Gordon)," Dantonio said. " They played a tremendous amount of football for us. Both of them had over 40 starts. Eric Gordon had more starts than any other player in the history of Michigan State football as a position player. It will be very difficult to replace.
"With that being said, we did play numbers last year. We played quite a few different guys in there. So we have some experience."
MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
- Division: Legends
- 2010 record: 11-2, 7-1 Big Ten (lost Capital One Bowl 49-7 to Alabama)
- Returning offensive starters (7): QB Kirk Cousins, RB Edwin Baker, WR B.J. Cunningham, G Joel Foreman, G Chris McDonald, TE Brian Linthicum , WR Keith Nichol
- Returning defensive starters (6): CB Johnny Adams, DE Tyler Hoover, LB Chris Norman, NT Kevin Pickelman, S Trenton Robinson, DT Jerel Worthy
- 2010 review: Michigan State earned a share of the Big Ten title but didn't reap the bowl reward associated with the accomplishment. The Spartans tied Wisconsin and Ohio State atop the Big Ten standings at 7-1. The Badgers had a higher BCS ranking than both squads and earned the automatic Rose Bowl berth. The Sugar Bowl chose Ohio State, which relegated Michigan State to the Capital One Bowl. Whether the Spartans lacked motivation or Alabama was refocused, Michigan State suffered a 49-7 trouncing in the bowl.
- 2011 schedule: S3 Youngstown State; S10 Florida Atlantic; S17 at Notre Dame; S24 Central Michigan; O1 at Ohio State; O15 Michigan; O22 Wisconsin; O29 at Nebraska; N5 Minnesota; N12 at Iowa; N19 Indiana; N26 at Northwestern
- Noteworthy: Michigan State's schedule is brutal on paper. The Spartans open league player at fellow Big Ten tri-champion Ohio State, get a week off then play biggest rival Michigan. Then Michigan State hosts the other Big Ten tri-champ, Wisconsin, play at newcomer Nebraska and two weeks later travel to Iowa, which blistered the Spartans 37-6 last year.
- Quotable: “We have a very tough October. ... But, again, we will embrace that. I think if you want to be the best, you've got to play the best. So we're on par with doing that. We're looking forward to it, but understand the challenges that go with it.." — Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio