EAST LANSING -- As players trickled onto the turf before Michigan State's final spring practice, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio corralled his team into a circle at the 50-yard line. He paced while detailing the day's workout, offering several reminders and a few choice words of inspiration. The field remained markedly quiet. Then, at a moment's notice, the team erupted into a raucous chant, emitting a rallying cry that echoed throughout the indoor facility.
Though the outburst lasted only a few seconds, the message was unmistakable: The Spartans are ready to be heard.
Months away from the 2011 season, the Big Ten already resembles a soap opera. Ohio State is reeling amid the resignation of its coach and an ongoing NCAA investigation; Michigan is rebuilding under Brady Hoke; Nebraska -- a year after nearly spurring a complete BCS restructuring -- is preparing to make its highly anticipated conference debut. It's been an offseason of twists and turns.
Largely absent from the conversation, however, has been defending conference co-champion Michigan State, which was shut out of the BCS last season despite an 11-2 finish. The Spartans have again faded into the background, forgotten amid the conference's surplus of storylines.
"When you got teams like Ohio State, teams that have been in the spotlight for years and years, they're going to have the publicity," said defensive end Jerel Worthy. "As long as we continue to win a lot of football games, then the media exposure and things like that will come."
The lack of attention doesn't mean the Spartans are any less dangerous.
"At the end of the day, we want to be there on Dec. 3 playing in Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship," said senior quarterback Kirk Cousins.
There are plenty of reasons for Michigan State to set its sights on Indy in 2011, starting with the man under center. Cousins, a starter since his sophomore year, is already the program's alltime leader in completion percentage (64.3) and ranks fourth in passing yards (5,815). He spent the offseason improving his deep throw accuracy, hoping to stretch blitz-happy defenses. Entering what will likely be his third year as a captain, Cousins should provide the necessary leadership to counter any complacency that surfaces in the aftermath of the Spartans' first Big Ten title since 1990.
"I think our performance in the bowl game against Alabama silenced any of those thoughts about us relaxing," Cousins said, referring to the Spartans' 49-7 loss to the Tide in the Capital One Bowl. "We came back with a chip on our shoulder and the realization that we're not among the nation's elite."
Cousins' experience should prove invaluable in a youthful conference. In matchups against Ricky Stanzi-less Iowa, Scott Tolzien-less Wisconsin and Terrelle Pryor-less Ohio State, Cousins should give Michigan State an edge in season-defining games.
He's hardly Michigan State's only weapon, however. The Spartans boast arguably the deepest running back trio in the conference, returning Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper. That three-pronged attack combined for 1,950 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2010, despite none being older than a sophomore. Given an extra year of experience and an increased workload, they should post even better totals in 2011.
"There's a tremendous amount of talent back there," said Cousins. "Sometimes I get frustrated because you want all three of them to have 1,000-yard seasons."
Finally, there's Dantonio, who appears fully healthy this spring following last year's heart attack. In just four years, he's propelled the Spartans from the bottom of the pack to the top, the first Michigan State coach ever to earn a bowl bid in each of his first four seasons. Coming off Big Ten Coach of the Year honors, he has the team completely buying into his steely, no-nonsense approach.
"He pushes us to the limit," said Baker. "He says we're gonna win on mental toughness and we're gonna win in the fourth quarter."
If the Spartans hope to prevail in tight games and make a run at a repeat Big Ten title and vaunted Rose Bowl berth, they're going to need help from newcomers. Two-time All-America linebacker Greg Jones and second team All-Big Ten cornerback Chris Rucker are among key defensive losses, which means more responsibilities for linebacker William Gholston and safety Trenton Robinson. With five new starters, the group will look to rebound from its embarrassing Capital One Bowl showing against Alabama.
The Spartans will also need to sure up the offensive line. Right guard Chris McDonald is currently the only returning lineman, with four-year starter Joel Foreman rehabbing from wrist and ankle injuries. The rest of the unit includes left guard John Deyo (no career starts), left tackle Jared McGaha (three) and right tackle Dan France, a redshirt sophomore switching to the position after two years on the defensive line.
"When you have a lot of young, inexperienced players like that, you're gonna have some growing pains," said Cousins. "But for how inexperienced they are, they're playing very, very well."
The biggest issue, however, may be stringing together back-to-back successful seasons, as the Spartans tend to take a year off. They went 6-7 in 2009 and 7-5 in 2007 with an impressive 9-4 campaign sandwiched in between. In recent years, they've been consistently inconsistent, alternating between boom years and bust.
To Dantonio, that can be offset by a veteran quarterback.
"With a quarterback with experience, everything sort of falls together," Dantonio said. "I think the experience that the quarterback brings to the table really can't be underestimated."
Cousins certainly doesn't want to be underestimated. "I want to be remembered as a special player here," he said. "The work is not done."
Over spring break, Cousins traveled to Southern California to train for the upcoming season. It was a routine trip, as he worked with a quarterbacks coach to hone his mechanics, footwork and pocket presence. But he made one notable detour, visiting the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
The ultimate goal is for Cousins and the Spartans to visit that stadium again in January. While the Spartans may be an afterthought to other conference contenders in the headlines, they have the potential to be their equals on the gridiron. It's seemingly the same script as last season.
"After being there and seeing it, it only further kindled the fire to get there," Cousins said. "It's the dream."