The Good News: Mark Dantonio is still in charge--and appears set on remaining in charge for years to come. Only a couple years removed from the heart attack that nearly ended his career, Dantonio seems more settled with Sparty, and more committed to his project there, than even before. Which is a good thing, too, because you can make a pretty solid case that Dantonio is the best coach Michigan State has had since Duffy Dougherty. Dantonio has delivered the wins, yes, and he's delivered a Big Ten title, too. But perhaps more importantly, he's been able to bring a sense of stability and discipline to a program that lacked both of those things for years. This program may never be truly elite, but under Dantonio, one gets the sense that the Sparty program is at least one to be reckoned with. Not just occasionally. But almost every year.
The Bad News: For all of the great things Dantonio has accomplished in East Lansing, there's one thing that he hasn't been able to do: Specifically, close the talent gap between his Spartans and the Big Ten's true elites. This, of course, is a problem that must be remedied should the Spartans want to take things to the next level, because without a steady stream of talent rolling into town, Michigan State will never be able to compete with the Ohio States and Michigans of the world on an annual basis. Take the 2012 Spartans, for example: Defensively, they should be outstanding. In fact, with the likes of William Gholston, Max Bullough and Johnny Adams, it's fair to say that the Spartans will field one of the Top 10 defenses in the nation. But over on offense? Well, outside of the offensive line, there is inexperience--and major question marks--pretty much everywhere. The difference makers aren't there. It's a question of depth, and it's difficult to develop that depth unless you're bringing in Top 15 classes every season. Which, of course, Dantonio isn't doing. Not yet, anyway.
Game to Watch: It's hard to get past that opener against Boise. First, all due respect to the powers-that-be in East Lansing for even scheduling this game; it is a game, truth be told, that many other Big Ten programs probably wouldn't have even considered. And given that the Spartans face Notre Dame just two weeks later, one can see a loss to Boise (and a loss to Notre Dame) basically ending the season before it even begins. But a win over the Broncos? Well, that be huge, even though many say (inaccurately, in my mind) that Boise will be taking a fairly huge step back in 2012.
What They'll Be Expecting: Dantonio has raised expectations up there in East Lansing. That much is clear. But in a year in which the Spartans will be breaking in a new quarterback and an entire fleet of new wideouts, it's hard to see how this bunch can make a run at the Big Ten crown. The defense will keep them in pretty much every game they play. But can they score enough to take advantage? I fear not.
The Schedule (key games marked with an *):
Fri. Aug. 31: Boise State *
Sat. Sept. 8: at Central Michigan
Sat. Sept. 15: Notre Dame *
Sat. Sept. 22: Eastern Michigan
Sat. Sept. 29: Ohio State *
Sat. Oct. 6: at Indiana
Sat. Oct. 13: Iowa
Sat. Oct. 20: at Michigan *
Sat. Oct. 27: at Wisconsin *
Sat. Nov. 3: Nebraska
Sat. Nov. 10: Bye
Sat. Nov. 17: Northwestern
Sat. Nov. 24: at Minnesota
Prediction: A great defense. A so-so offense. It's not easy to figure this one out. Kirk Cousins may not have been a great quarterback, but he was pretty good, and without his steadying influence in the huddle, it's easy to see this offense sputtering both in the opener against Boise and the Week 3 showdown against an improving Notre Dame squad. The back-to-back road tests against Michigan and Wisconsin look pretty tough, too. In short, it's a rebuilding year for Dantonio. Prediction: 9-3