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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Michigan St. (11-3, 7-1)

Last fall, Michigan State beat Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan and a team from the SEC in one season for the first time in program history. This isn’t surprising: Michigan State has won only six games against SEC competition in its history, with four of those wins coming from 1929-1947. What is surprising, however, is the fact that the Spartans beat the Buckeyes, Badgers and Wolverines in the same season for only the second time in program history; the first, in 1987, came during the Spartans’ last outright Big Ten title. Rare? Heck, beating Ohio State and Michigan in the same season is rare enough for Michigan State.

That’s something the Spartans have achieved seven times: 2011, 1999, 1998, 1987, 1966, 1965, 1953 and 1951. Michigan State has topped the Badgers and Buckeyes in the same season five times: 2011, 1988, 1987, 1974 and 1972. Beating all three of those conference rivals in one year is as rare as 11-win seasons, of which the Spartans have two in as many years.

But none before 2010, a point that the rest of the Big Ten pointed out with glee prior to Michigan State’s current resurgence under Mark Dantonio. Now, after 22 wins over two years, those same rivals have only questions: How have the Spartans done it? How can we copy it?

The simple answer? Take a system, add a serious heaping of patience and throw in a helpful dash of senior leadership. Add more patience. Wait, and don’t watch: it’ll never boil, or something to that end. Don’t be discouraged by a step back, like the one M.S.U. took in 2009, when it slid to 6-7 after winning nine games the year before.

Other Big Ten programs have greater built-in advantages. Every kid in Ohio wants to spend his college career in the Horseshoe. Outside of certain pockets within the state, most of Michigan dreams in Maize and Blue. In spite of the last few months, Penn State’s support base and recruiting pull is the envy of all but a select slice of the nation’s elite.

Michigan State is, to use a favorite phrase in Ann Arbor, a little brother. The Spartans can’t pick and choose top talent. They can’t afford to miss in one recruiting class and hope to contend; Ohio State can, to cite one example. To compensate, the program must keep its nose to the grindstone. And Michigan State must stick to the plan — there are no shortcuts.

The Spartans’ recent climb ups the ante in the Big Ten. Three years ago, the Legends division would have been nightmare: Michigan was mired in its worst stretch in program history, Nebraska still in its infancy under Bo Pelini and Minnesota a mess. Iowa would have been the top dog, but the Big Ten as a whole would resembled the old Big 12: the Leaders would play the role of the North, while the Legends would resemble the South.

The landscape has changed. Michigan’s found a coach. After weathering its debut, Nebraska knows what to expect during conference play. And the Spartans — the team that used to do nothing if not disappoint — are built for the long haul. In fact, Michigan State’s recent approach should serve as a blueprint for Big Ten program looking to build a foundation for long-term success.

That includes Michigan and Ohio State. More than any B.C.S. conference coach in recent memory, Brady Hoke successfully implemented his system on the fly with the Wolverines. Forget a learning curve: Michigan was ready to win from day one, and Hoke and his staff expected nothing less. But long-term success to match last fall’s breakthrough will be provide a far sterner test.

It’ll take a dedicated approach to finding the right sort of talent — not necessarily the five stars, but high school seniors who fit into Hoke’s scheme on both sides of the ball. This involves careful homework in search of the right sort of players for Hoke’s vision of the program.

In Columbus, Ohio State will need to follow Michigan State’s big-picture approach. There’s talent on the roster, but not necessarily the sort of talent that will allow Urban Meyer to duplicate Hoke’s one-year revival. It’ll take some time, at least one full recruiting class, for Meyer to bring in players suited for his unorthodox system.

Dantonio’s first class, one compiled on short notice in early 2007, formed the backbone of the Spartans’ back-to-back 11-win teams. Kirk Cousins was brought in at quarterback; so was Nick Foles, who transferred to Arizona after one season with the Spartans. Dantonio signed a receiver named B.J. Cunningham. A two-star offensive lineman named Joel Foreman. A defensive back named Chris Rucker.

And after taking some lumps through 2007-9, this class helped the program reach the sort of heights not seen in East Lansing in four decades. Now that they’ve gone — along with a number of other key contributors — Michigan State has a question of its own: Can we maintain this sort of pace without our stars? Again, it’s time to have faith in the system.

Season grade: A Losing to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game hit the Spartans where it hurts: no Rose Bowl bid, for starters, but a loss also pushed Michigan into a B.C.S. bowl at the Spartans’ expense. That the Spartans overcame that particular disappointment — let alone a significant second-half deficit — to beat Georgia in the Outback Bowl speaks volumes about this team’s strong coaching and senior leadership. This was a team that took its cue from the veterans, from Cousins on offense to Trenton Robinson on defense, and was guided by a steady and confident coaching staff. The end result? Another 11 wins, a program-record fifth consecutive bowl berth and the program’s first bowl win in more than a decade.

High point Perhaps the most satisfying three-week stretch in program history. It began with an ugly, nasty, hide-the-children win in Columbus — Michigan State’s first win in the Horseshoe since 1998. That was followed by a win over Michigan, the program’s fourth straight, and ended with the last-second victory against Wisconsin. Pretty good, right?

Low point The 31-13 loss to Notre Dame in September was strange. So was the Spartans’ inflexible offensive game plan in a 24-3 loss at Nebraska in late October.

Offensive M.V.P. The offense was littered with under-the-radar stars. B.J. Cunningham finished third in the Big Ten in receptions and receiving yards and tied for first in touchdown grabs. Keshawn Martin stepped up his play at receiver, giving the Spartans a complimentary target in the passing game in addition to his consistently strong play on special teams. The backfield pairing of Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker combined for 1,613 yards and 18 scores on the ground. Joel Foreman earned second-team all-conference honors for the second straight year. But the glue was Cousins; he was the centerpiece of this offense. He threw for a Big Ten-best 3,316 yards, topping the 3,000-yard mark for the second straight year, and tossed 25 touchdowns for the second consecutive season. Beyond the numbers, Cousins was everything a senior quarterback is supposed to be.

Defensive M.V.P. Seven defensive players earned all-Big Ten honors, and deservedly so: Michigan State led the conference in total defense by a fairly substantial margin, finishing ninth nationally against the run. That the Spartans allowed only 100.5 rushing yards per game is noteworthy: M.S.U. was of only two teams ranked in the top 23 nationally to face more than 500 carries. Add in that rush defense with one of the pass rushes in the F.B.S. – third nationally in getting to the quarterback – and you have one of the best defenses in the country. What was the key? Speed on the outside. Young talent coming off the edge. Opportunistic play in the secondary. A defensive tackle like Jerel Worthy in the middle. Start strong up front: Michigan State had a stalwart in the middle, and the rest followed.

Stock watch Can Michigan avoid a sophomore slump? Will Nebraska’s defense adapt to the Big Ten? Will Iowa find its groove with a new offensive and defensive coordinator? The point: Michigan State isn’t the only Legends division team with questions to address. The difference is that unlike that trio, the Spartans’ concerns center around the roster. The fifth-year seniors – Cousins, Cunningham and Foreman, for example – leave huge holes on the field and in the locker room. Worthy opted to forego his final season of eligibility, leaving an enormous gap in the middle of the defensive line. How the team looks on paper will lead to most overlooking the Spartans heading into September – in this case, little will have changed.

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