College football: Things could be rosy again for Spartans

College football: Things could be rosy again for Spartans
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook helped lead the Spartans to a Rose Bowl victory over Stanford in January after posting a 12-1 record, and winning the Big Ten championship. (Al Goldis / Associated Press)

Acknowledging that college football's new four-team playoff could someday inch toward a larger basketball-style tournament, we continue our Super 16 countdown, with No. 12 Michigan State:

The unadulterated joy that swept through Michigan State's locker room after the Spartans' 24-20 win over Stanford encapsulated everything a great Rose Bowl should be.

Michigan State players performed impromptu dances sparked by a dramatic fourth-and-inches defensive stand to preserve victory in the final 1:43.

We can't wait for this year's traditional matchup between the Pac-12 and Big Ten champions on Jan. 1 … oh wait.

The Rose Bowl isn't the Rose Bowl this season, unless the Pac-12 and Big Ten champions should somehow meet in a matchup of top-four schools.

As part of the new format, the Rose Bowl is hosting one of the two national semifinal games on Jan. 1.

Or, maybe, this is where Michigan State takes its next giant step.

Winning the Rose Bowl was once the pinnacle for teams in the Big Ten, and last year it was special because it was the school's first win in Pasadena since 1988.


Michigan State has now earned the right to ask, though: What next?

Last year's Rose Bowl was an interesting litmus test in that the two schools would have both been in the conversation for a fourth playoff team.

Michigan State finished No. 4 in the final BCS standings and Stanford was No. 5. The Spartans had only one loss and Stanford, playing in a much better conference, two.

Michigan State proved, narrowly, that it would have deserved the final playoff spot.

A Rose Bowl return in 2014, though, would mean making the playoffs for real.

"We're going to dream big," Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio said this summer.

Winning the Big Ten and Rose Bowl has been established.

"It's human nature when you've been able to run a four-minute mile, you want to break that down," he said. "When you are able to go to the moon, you want to go farther. So, yeah, we talk about it [the national title]. Once."

Michigan State lost one game last year, by four points, to Notre Dame. But is this the year to dream big?

The Spartans must replace three offensive linemen and key parts of one of the nation's most dominating defenses.

The key in the secondary, shut-down cornerback Darqueze Dennard, is a Cincinnati Bengal now.

In a twist, this year it might take the defense time to catch up with the offense.

The Spartans are loaded at the skill positions, starting with quarterback Connor Cook, who won the job early last year and got better with time. He finished with 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions.

"He's not trying to win the job," Dantonio said, "he's got the job."

Cook is joined by 1,000-yard rusher Jeremy Langford and star receiver Tony Lippett.

The defense is anchored by star lineman Shilique Calhoun, but its depth and stamina will be tested early with a Sept. 6 trip to up-tempo Oregon.

Michigan State also ended up in the tougher East division of the reconfigured, 13-team Big Ten. The Spartans play Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State on their side and Nebraska in the West.

The path, though, is clear: An early win over Oregon would catapult Michigan State into the national title talk and put the Spartans on course to reach their ultimate goal.

What could be the only thing better than getting to the Rose Bowl last year? Answer: getting to the Rose Bowl this year.

The countdown so far: No. 16 Notre Dame, No. 15 Mississippi, No. 14 Stanford, No. 13 Louisiana State.