August 30, 2016

It's not a typical start to the season for Michigan State as it opens with Furman on a Friday night.

The No. 12 Spartans won't see normal for a while, but the Friday Night Lights atmosphere at Spartan Stadium (7 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network) is a welcome sight. Next week coach Mark Dantonio's team has a bye before hitting the road to take on Notre Dame.

Dantonio prepares to enter his 10th season leading the Spartans having resurrected a program that saw almost no consistency in the preceding decades.

He's never had a losing season and has been to a bowl game every year, and in the last three seasons, Dantonio has led the Spartans to wins in the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl, a spot in the College Football Playoffs and three straight finishes at No. 6 or higher in the national rankings.

Add in three Big Ten championships and 11 or more victories in five of the last six seasons, and it's clear Dantonio has established the Spartans as a national program.

"We can sell results, we really can," Dantonio said. "We can sit there and say, 'This is what we've done, these are the things you can look forward to if you come to school at Michigan State. There's opportunities for you.'

"That's really the difference there. Early on in the process, that was not the case. But now it seems like that's what we sell."

Furman was 4-7 last season and its only game against a Power 5 school resulted in a 42-3 loss at Virginia Tech.

Some believe the Spartans will see a drop-off, something critics have been predicting every year since Michigan State won a share of the Big Ten title in 2010.

That doesn't mean there won't be challenges moving forward. Ohio State continues to be among the best programs in the nation and Harbaugh mania has taken over at Michigan with the presence of coach Jim Harbaugh convincing most the Wolverines have returned from their funk.

And that's just the hurdles Michigan State has in the Big Ten East. Winning another division title will be tougher as the Spartans must replace quarterback Connor Cook - the winningest quarterback in school history - along with defensive end Shilique Calhoun Big Ten Receiver of the Year Aaron Burbridge.

The conference schedule is favorable as both Michigan and Ohio State travel to Spartan Stadium late in the season. If Michigan State can continue its mastery of Michigan (winners in seven of the last eight) and keep challenging the Buckeyes (MSU is the only team to beat Urban Meyer in Big Ten play), the results will be there once again.

And the rest of the conference will continue to wonder when the drop-off will come.

To remain on a level plain, the Spartans need stability at quarterback.

Tyler O'Connor doesn't need to be Connor Cook, but it needs him to manage the Spartans' pro-style offense and limit the mistakes. He was Cook's backup the last two seasons and helped orchestrate the Spartans' win at Ohio State last season when Cook was out with an injured shoulder.

He's also got as much knowledge of the offense and has the respect of the players in the locker room. O'Connor had plenty of chances to transfer but had his sights set on the season.

To date, O'Connor has one big hit on his resume - leading the Spartans to a victory over Ohio State at Ohio Stadium last season while Cook rested a sore shoulder. But as he told teammates in his fall camp speech, he didn't stick around East Lansing to be a one-hit wonder.

"I can't imagine not being here after hearing things about different schools," he said. "We have it great here, not only football-wise but the culture and the people and education. There's just too much to pass up on and go somewhere else if you don't know how good it really is here."

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