EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Outside of the locker room at Michigan State's Duffy Daugherty football building, there's a long hallway lined with framed jerseys from the Spartans' various bowl appearances through the years. The impressive array of logo patches includes the Capital One, Outback and even the short-lived Silicon Valley Classic. But the last Rose, from back in 1988, doesn't appear until the end of the hall.
All around the rest of the building, however -- in the lobby, the meeting rooms, the indoor practice facility -- the current Rose Bowl logo stares players in the face. And taped to the locker room door, on a simple piece of white paper, is the following message: "Big Ten Champs. BCS Bowl. Are We Working Hard Enough?"
"The goals are more attainable than when I got here," said junior linebacker Max Bullough. "Guys aren't wishing for a Big Ten championship. Guys aren't saying, 'Oh, maybe we can get there.' Now, we expect to be there."
Bullough, a Traverse City, Mich., native who grew up a diehard Spartans fan, knows well the program's long history of teasing and underachieving. Under the direction of sixth-year coach Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have finally trashed that script, winning a school-record 11 games in consecutive seasons and more Big Ten games (24) over the past four years than any other league team. Still, Pasadena has eluded them.
Wisconsin -- a team Michigan State has beaten twice in three meetings since 2010 -- has gone to the last two Rose Bowls instead, the first time via a three-way tiebreaker, the last after a rematch victory over Michigan State in the inaugural Big Ten title game. Hated rival Michigan -- a team Michigan State has beaten four consecutive seasons -- grabbed the league's other BCS berth last year.
It's no surprise, then, that the Wolverines (No. 8) and Badgers (No. 12) checked in ahead of 13th-ranked Michigan State in the preseason AP poll. But based on recent history, returning starters and early NFL draft projections, there's a strong case to be made that for the first time in a quarter-century, the best team in the Big Ten resides in East Lansing.
A former defensive backs coach under Nick Saban at Michigan State and the defensive coordinator for Jim Tressel's 2002 Ohio State national title team, Dantonio set out six years ago to build a program following much the same blueprint those mentors employ. "For me, it's always started on defense, because I'm a defensive coach," said the 56-year-old Dantonio.
Last year, the Spartans quietly fielded one of the nation's premier defenses: No. 6 overall (277.4 yards per game), No. 7 in sacks (44), No. 9 against the run (100.5) and No. 10 in scoring defense (18.4 points per game). They did it with a relatively young lineup, and eight starters from that unit return, led by fearsome 6-foot-7, 278-pound defensive end William Gholston, who enjoyed a national coming out with five tackles for loss and two sacks in Michigan State's triple-overtime Outback Bowl victory over SEC East champ Georgia.
Gholston, a junior, and senior cornerback Johnny Adams are considered consensus first-round NFL prospects. Bullough (who delivered a team-high 89 tackles last season), safety Isaiah Lewis (74 tackles, four interceptions), linebacker Denicos Allen (11 sacks), defensive end Marcus Rush (12 tackles for loss) and cornerback Darqueze Dennard (three interceptions) are all underclassmen who will likely wind up on scouts' radar as well.
Gholston is the only former five-star recruit among the group, Bullough the only other to crack the Rivals250. Having long struggled to beat out Ohio State and Michigan for the region's most decorated recruits, Dantonio and his staff rely heavily on their high-school summer camps to identify potential fits. Former star defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, a second-round pick by the Green Bay Packers last spring, was a three-star recruit who got his first Big Ten offer after shining at a Michigan State camp. Safety Trenton Robinson, a sixth-round pick by the 49ers, was a two-star guy and another camp standout.
"We get them in camp and watch how they work," said defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. "You've got a kid, you watch him on tape, he's a good player, [but] you get him to camp and he might be a dog. He might not have great character. It's finding all the intangibles and really getting to know kids."
The animated Narduzzi, who began his career studying the great Miami teams of the early '90s, places an emphasis on speed and aggression. "Our philosophy is just to keep it simple and get them to play fast," Narduzzi said. "We press our corners every down. We're up in your face. That's the kind of speed we feel that we have. We tell those guys, Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard, 'You allow us to get nine guys in the box to stuff the run.' It takes away all the quarterbacks' short throws."
Michigan star Denard Robinson felt the brunt of that pressure in a 28-14 loss last year, enduring four sacks and a 9-of-24 passing day. (That game also elicited accusations of dirty play: Gholston was suspended one game by the Big Ten for punching Wolverines tackle Taylor Lewan, and Narduzzi was reprimanded by his athletic director for describing the Spartans' performance as "60 minutes of unnecessary roughness.") In the bowl game against Georgia, Michigan State fell behind 16-0, but rallied by harassing Aaron Murray into four sacks and a pair of Dennard interceptions, one of which Dennard returned 38 yards for a touchdown.
"The Georgia game last year was a huge landmark for where this program's going," said Bullough, who endured a 49-7 bowl drubbing by Alabama the previous year. "Everyone's been talking about the SEC and how they're the power conference, but we believe Michigan State and the Big Ten are on our way back to the top."
While there are a couple of starting jobs still up for grabs, including Worthy's vacated tackle spot and the starting safety spot opposite Lewis, the coaches get most excited talking about the younger backups. "We've got some depth on the defensive line and [at the] linebacker position," said Dantonio. "You'll probably see eight or nine defensive linemen play, which is a luxury."
The Spartans' primary questions come on offense. Junior running back Le'Veon Bell (948 yards, 13 touchdowns), another former two-star recruit turned NFL prospect (he appeared in Mel Kiper Jr.'s first 2013 mock draft), is one of their lone proven commodities. Three-year starting quarterback Kirk Cousins, now with the Washington Redskins, is gone, as are his top three wide receivers.
But while fourth-year junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell has not yet made his first start, inside the program he's already treated like a trusted veteran. The 6-3, 212-pound Michigan native -- a national top 10 quarterback in the loaded high school class of 2009 -- traveled with Dantonio to last month's Big Ten Media Days.
"I expect Andrew Maxwell to go into this season where Kirk Cousins went into 2011," quarterbacks coach Dave Warner told reporters Aug. 17.
Maxwell's primary targets figure to be junior Bennie Fowler, sophomores Tony Lippett (who started five games at cornerback last year) and Keith Mumphrey and junior tight end Dion Sims. The offensive line returns four starters.
As a freshman in 2009, Maxwell redshirted and watched Michigan State turn in the lone losing season of Dantonio's tenure, falling to Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl. The Spartans have gone 22-5 since.
"When Coach Dantonio went out and recruited everybody in this program, he painted the picture of where he saw this program going, and this is the picture he painted -- that we could set realistic goals to compete for Big Ten championships, to compete for Rose Bowls and compete for national titles," said Maxwell. "No one on this team signed on to be part of a 6-6 football team. We all signed on to be part of this."
Maxwell will get quite the initiation, opening on national television on a Friday night against Boise State. Notre Dame visits two weeks later, Ohio State two weeks after that. But the Spartans' season will likely turn on a daunting two-game swing the last two weeks of October: at Michigan and at Wisconsin.
The Spartans, Wolverines and Huskers figure to once again contend for the Big Ten's Legends Division title, and with Ohio State and Penn State ineligible on the other side, Wisconsin figures to be waiting again in Indianapolis.
Another trip to Pasadena might seem ho-hum for the Badgers at this point. For Michigan State, however, it would be the ideal way to celebrate the 25-year anniversary of its last Rose Bowl appearance. In that 20-17 win over USC, Spartans linebacker Percy Snow earned MVP honors with 17 tackles, and Michigan State intercepted Trojans star Rodney Peete three times.
It was exactly the kind of defensive performance for which the 2012 Spartans are built.