MSU won a share of the Big Ten title for the first time since 1990 but lost out on tiebreakers to fellow tri-champs Wisconsin and Ohio State and had to settle for a trip to the Capital One Bowl. The Spartans still are looking for their first BCS appearance.
The potential is there for that trip to come this season. First, though, Michigan State must answer some key questions this spring. Work needs to be done along the offensive line, and the linebacking corps must be rebuilt.
But there is a lot to like about Dantonio's fifth Spartans squad, beginning with an offense that is loaded with veteran skill-position talent.
There will be a new offensive coordinator after Don Treadwell left to become coach at Miami (Ohio). Dantonio promoted offensive line coach Dan Roushar to the post. Roushar has been a coordinator at Illinois (2004), Northern Illinois (1998-2002), Ball State (1994) and Butler (1989-92).
Michigan State also hired Terrence Samuel to coach receivers, a position Treadwell used to coach.
Something else to monitor: Can MSU recapture that mojo of 2010? The team seemingly galvanized after Dantonio suffered a heart attack following a win over Notre Dame in September. He missed two games before returning to the sideline against Michigan and led his team to a stirring win before the season ended with a resounding thud with a 49-7 loss to Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.
Here's a look at Michigan State as it prepares to begin spring drills.
MICHIGAN STATE AT-A-GLANCE
Mark Dantonio overcame a heart attack to guide MSU to a share of the Big Ten title.
Coach: Mark Dantonio Last season: 11-2 overall, 7-1 in Big Ten. Lost 49-7 to Alabama in Capital One Bowl.
Spring dates: March 29-April 30.
RETURNING STARTERS (minimum seven starts last season)
QB Kirk Cousins enters his third season as the starter. He is 16-9 as the starter and completed 67 percent of his passes for 2,825 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2010. He already ranks among MSU's career leaders in several categories. Michigan State is loaded at running back with its top three tailbacks returning. Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper combined to rush for 1,950 yards and 23 touchdowns. Baker led the team in carries (207), rushing yards (1,201) and rushing TDs (13). Despite the loss of Mark Dell, the Spartans remain stocked at receiver. B.J. Cunningham led the team in TD catches (nine) in 2010 and ranked second in receptions (50) and receiving yards (611). Keshawn Martin, who doubles as a deadly return man, and Keith Nichol are other viable targets. K Dan Conroy is money, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors last season. Led by E Tyler Hoover, NT Kevin Pickelman and T Jerel Worthy, the defensive line could be among the Big Ten's best. And the secondary looks good with CB Johnny Adams and FS Trenton Robinson leading the way. SS Isaiah Lewis, a nickel back in 2010, is a guy to watch.
Help is needed
Keep an eye on the linebackers. Michigan State must replace two four-year starters. Greg Jones was a two-time All-American, while Eric Gordon was underrated. The duo started more games at linebacker (95 combined starts) than any other tandem in Spartans history. LBs Max Bullough and Chris Norman are being counted on to step up. One defensive end needs to emerge as an All-Big Ten-type of talent. MSU ranked 90th in the country in sacks and 91st in tackles for loss. A disruptive force is needed. For the second season in a row, the Spartans must replace three starters on the offensive line. MSU needs two tackles and a center. David Barrent, JC transfer Fou Fonoti and Jared McGaha are the top contenders at tackle. It will be difficult to replace P Aaron Bates, who led the Big Ten and ranked No. 13 in the FBS in punting with his 45-yard average in 2010. Bates was the first punter in the 114-year history of Spartans football to be named captain. Penalties must be reduced, as Sparty ranked 91st in the nation in penalties per game.
3 guys to watch
LB Max Bullough: He played behind All-America Greg Jones at middle linebacker last season. At 6 feet 3 and 235 pounds, Bullough -- a sophomore whose dad and grandfather player for Michigan State -- has the size and also the maturity to step into the starting lineup. But he must get back into the good graces of the staff after being arrested on an alcohol offense in March.
DE William Gholston: He saw action primarily as a designated pass rusher as a true freshman. Expect the 6-7, 250-pound Gholston, the biggest recruit in Mark Dantonio's tenure, to blossom in 2011. He made the transition from linebacker to end during 2010 preseason camp. Gholston could be a star.
WR/CB Tony Lippett: Lippett, a redshirt freshman, is expected to contribute on both sides of the ball as a receiver and cornerback. A tremendous all-around athlete, Lippett turned a lot of heads as the scout team quarterback, imitating Michigan's Denard Robinson last season.
The pressure is on
DE Tyler Hoover: At 6-7 and 260 pounds, Hoover can become a dominant player off the edge, a commodity this defense needs. He had a solid 2010 season as a first-year starter (career-best 36 tackles in nine starts). And he showed flashes of brilliance, recording nine tackles each in back-to-back games against Illinois (with a sack) and Northwestern (two sacks). Hoover, a junior, can be special if he puts it all together.
There is a lot to like about the 2011 Spartans, especially if they answer questions along the offensive line, at linebacker and find some playmakers on defense. Michigan State looks like a serious contender to win the Legends Division, with Iowa and Nebraska figuring to be the main competitors. Dantonio's program has lots of momentum and lots of skill-position talent.