Spartans must replace talented seniors after playoff rout

When Connor Cook threw an interception deep in Alabama territory at the end of the first half, Michigan State had wasted its last good chance to make a game of it.

And when Alabama added three touchdowns in the third quarter, it was time for the Spartans to face an uncertain future.

After a thrilling season that ended with an appearance in college football's playoff, Michigan State loses substantial talent in 2016. The Spartans have become a force in the Big Ten the last six years, but coach Mark Dantonio and his team will confront some challenges in the coming months.

And the lopsided nature of third-ranked Michigan State's 38-0 loss to second-ranked Alabama in the national semifinals may linger.

''This is the first time in a while we've had this happen to us,'' Dantonio said. ''You've got to pick up the pieces.''

This was, by any measure, a memorable year for Michigan State. The Spartans (12-2) won the Big Ten and reached the playoff, and Michigan State fans can look back on three of the most pulsating victories in the program's history.

The Spartans beat Michigan on the final play when the Wolverines botched a punt and Michigan State ran the loose ball back for a touchdown. At Ohio State, the Spartans upset the Buckeyes even though Cook didn't play because of an injury.

In the conference title game, Michigan State edged unbeaten Iowa on a touchdown in the final minute, wrapping up a spot in the playoff.

Success was especially sweet for the Spartans in a year when Ohio State was coming off a national title and Michigan had just hired Jim Harbaugh. There was talk that Michigan State would fade from national relevance, but that certainly didn't happen this season.

''The ride has been so fun,'' Cook said. ''And the last thing I want to do is look at the downside and say, `Our last game as Spartans we lost.' We want to be positive people.''

Replacing Cook will be a big challenge. Backups Tyler O'Connor and Damion Terry played in the win over Ohio State, but they combined for only 31 pass attempts this season.

''They know the offense just as good as me,'' Cook said. ''Tyler is going to be a senior next year. Damion is going to be a junior. So those guys, what they're going to take with them going into next year is just the experience and knowledge of the offense and just the familiarity and comfort that they have.''

Aside from Cook, several other seniors will also be moving on. Michigan State will lose receiver Aaron Burbridge, offensive lineman Jack Allen, defensive linemen Shilique Calhoun, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas and linebacker Darien Harris.

The Spartans won the Big Ten despite a schedule that forced them to play Michigan and Ohio State on the road. Michigan State gets to host those teams in 2016, and although Wisconsin returns to the schedule as a cross-divisional matchup, that game is also at home.

The Spartans will also be tested early with a road game against Notre Dame - another opportunity on a big stage for a program that's had plenty of them lately.

''You remain focused on being positive, and you take the next step in life,'' Dantonio said. ''Had a great season, we'll dwell on that. Our guys will get back ready to start 2016.''

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AP College Football website: collegefootball.ap.org

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Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister

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