Michigan State's Dantonio says possibilities are 'real' team will end Big Ten title drought

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio likes the fact that his players are openly talking about ending the school's Big Ten title drought and finally getting back to the Rose Bowl.

"Those possibilities are real," Dantonio said Tuesday, a day after the team's first practice.

The Spartans have one of the best defensive players in the country, linebacker Greg Jones, and experienced quarterback Kirk Cousins.

History is working against them: Michigan State's last conference championship was in 1990 and the Spartans have not played in Pasadena, Calif., since the 1987 season.

Dantonio said both streaks can end this season because his fourth team at Michigan State is the most talented he's had as a head coach.

"We go into every game feeling like we can win," he said.

If the Spartans earn enough victories to make it to any bowl game, they will match a school record with a fourth straight postseason bid, equaling the streak that started with their last Rose Bowl appearance and stopped with their previous Big Ten title.

Jones and Cousins give the Spartans a shot to be good on both sides of the ball.

The All-American Jones won the Big Ten defensive player of the year award last season after ranking among the nation's leaders with 154 tackles and the conference's best with nine sacks. Instead of entering the NFL draft and cashing in on his success, he returned for his senior season.

"I'm just really excited to be back with the team to help us try to win a championship," said Jones, who said he has added 15 pounds of muscle since last season. "Instead of guys just saying we want to be a champs, guys actually put in the work during the offseason."

To win this fall, Michigan State has to be much better than it was last year when teams threw the ball.

The Spartans ranked last in the Big Ten in pass defense — giving up 32 touchdowns through the air — and didn't have a player with more than one interception for the first time since 1954.

"A lot of times, we were in a position to make plays," said cornerback Chris Rucker, one of two returning starters in the secondary. "This year, we have to make plays."

The Spartans shouldn't have trouble scoring when they have the ball.

Cousins trailed only one Big Ten player in passing efficiency last season, throwing 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He was the second player in school history and the first in 60 years to be named captain as a sophomore, then showed more leadership by spending time with teammates this summer.

B.J. Cunningham and Mark Dell will have an opportunity to be go-to targets — getting a second chance to play after being involved in a brawl with a fraternity last year — and converted quarterback Keith Nichol is trying to get on the field as a receiver.

Larry Caper and Edwin Baker, who combined to run for nearly 900 yards as freshmen last year, will share handoffs behind an offensive line with two returning starters from last year's 6-7 team.

"We were very close — maybe only a few plays — from having a special season and maybe being 10-2," Cousins said. "When we get in close situations this year, we need to come out on top."

Michigan State doesn't have its all-time scoring leader — Brett Swenson — around anymore to make game-winning kicks and hopes Dan Conroy, Kevin Muma or Mike Sadler emerge as a clear-cut starter during training camp.

As important as anything the Spartans do on the field, their conduct off it will viewed with a critical eye.

Eleven current or former players pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in connection with the fraternity fight last November, and Rucker says he accepts that the poor choices he and teammates marred the program.

"When you make mistakes, you've got to be ready to pay the consequences," said Rucker, who was sentenced to 12 months of probation and 150 hours of community service. "I know it's going to be a rough road with that, but I'm looking forward to us cleaning up our image."