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March 29, 2011

College Football Report - Michigan State Needs to Take Advantage of 2011 Season:

If there was ever a year for Michigan State to take advantage of a good opportunity to win, the 2011 season would be the time to do so.

Michigan State isn’t a team big on taking advantage of opportunity, though. There really haven’t been a whole lot of chances to take advantage of anything around East Lansing, but when the chance was at hand, they’ve missed the mark.

Take the 2010 Capital One Bowl for instance. After an 11-1 season, and first place tie in the Big Ten, many Spartan faithful were smelling roses. Only the BCS rankings sent Big Ten foe Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl instead, a team the Spartans beat in October.

MSU fans were sent in a fit over the side-step by the BCS, but State did get the next best thing: A BCS Bowl game caliber team with Alabama, the reigning National Champion. It became a perfect opportunity for Michigan State to prove they belonged to be mentioned with the big boys of college football.

The outcome however, is a sensitive subject for some, a laughable matter for others. The Tide crushed State 49-7, racked up 546 total offensive yards and held MSU to just 171 total yards. The Spartans were even forced to go with backup wide receiver Keith Nichol at quarterback, after starter Kirk Cousins and backup Andrew Maxwell were knocked out of the game.

Not surprisingly, the Spartans did nothing to strengthen their argument of deserving a BCS Bowl game. It also put a soggy ending on an impressive season. Opportunity missed.

The 2011 season has yet to begin, but things are feeling a little different for State heading in. Starting the season on an 8-0 run doesn’t feel like a realistic start again, but as learned last season, it’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish.

The schedule opens with early pushovers against Youngstown State, FAU and Central Michigan. Visits to Notre Dame and Ohio State round off the first five games.

The Ohio State game is fairly intriguing. MSU has not beaten OSU since 1998, having lost eight straight to the Buckeyes, but five of the Bucks best players, including quarterback Terrelle Pryor, will sit due to NCAA violations. Head coach Jim Tressel will also sit for NCAA rule violations and there’s no reason to expect the suspensions to be cut.

Two traditional powers on the schedule will be heading through quarterback changes, where longtime starters have moved on at Iowa and Wisconsin. Rebuilding years could follow both.

Coaching changes, even more so destructive than a quarterback change, follow Michigan, Indiana and Minnesota. Michigan should be improved, but the offensive transition from the spread option to a pro style set should take at least a year.

The lone games that should give the Spartans a scare should be the early Notre Dame matchup, a late October trip to Nebraska and a season ending visit to conference sleeper Northwestern.

The offense is stacked with experienced talent, led by senior quarterback Kirk Cousins. As a junior, Cousins passed for over 2,800 yards, completing nearly 67 percent of his passes. Wideouts B.J. Cunningham and Keshwan Martin, both seniors, form an impressive duo for Cousins to throw to.

Running backs Edwin Baker (above), Le’Veon Bell and Larry Caper load one of the better backfields in the Big Ten. Baker, a junior, led the team in rushing last season with 1,201 yards and 13 scores on the ground, while Bell, a sophomore, adds size and power to the group.

The defense features bookend 6-foot-7 defensive ends in junior Tyler Hoover and sophomore William Gholston (right), a former five star recruit. Sophomore linebacker Max Bullough, forced to sit part of spring practice for disciplinary reasons, will help fill the hole left by All-American Greg Jones. The secondary returns starters Johnny Adams and Trenton Robinson, who combined for seven interceptions and 15 pass breakups last season.

Although the schedule may be working in MSU’s favor and a talent load may be returning, the key for Michigan State will be holding a winning mentality throughout the season and keeping themselves from falling into old ways.

At times last season, the Spartans got complacent and found themselves playing the comeback role more often than not. They nearly blew a 10 point lead to Wisconsin in the fourth. Entered the fourth quarter down 10 to Northwestern and needed to fight back down 28-13 to Purdue in the fourth quarter.

It made for great TV, but closely resembled the Spartans of old. The same Spartans that ended with an average finish of seventh place in the Big Ten the last 10 years. The same Spartans that, before 2008, followed a winning season with a 6-6 record or worse for 18 straight years. The trend later picked back up in 2009.

Other than last year, State has only one other first place finish in the Big Ten the last 20 years, but both are shared titles.

That can all change with the addition of the Big Ten Championship game come next fall, but that will also only change if Michigan State takes advantage of the opportunity at hand. Something easier said than done for the Spartans.

Photo Credit: Joel Hawksley/Grand Rapids Press

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