LARRY LAGE, AP Sports Writer
DETROIT (AP) — It’s tough to top the year in sports the state of Michigan has had in 2011.
Next year might be even better.
The Lions, the sports-crazed area’s favorite team, have already avoided a losing season and are in position to make the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season.
The Tigers won a division title for the first time since 1987. Mike Ilitch’s other team in town, the Red Wings, won their division for the ninth time in 10 years.
Michigan restored its glory as college football’s winningest team, making a smooth transition from Rich Rodriguez to Brady Hoke, but couldn’t avoid a four-game losing streak to Michigan State.
Both the Wolverines and Spartans were in the NCAA tournament after John Beilein handed Tom Izzo consecutive losses in the recently lopsided series for the first time this century.
The Pistons are the only one of the state’s eight major teams that would like to forget 2011.
Detroit’s four franchises and the state’s Big Ten football and basketball teams — along with their passionate fans — have reasons to be optimistic 2012 will be one to remember.
The Lions’ decades-long search for a quarterback has ended with Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 pick overall in 2009, who will play in more games this season than he did in the previous two years combined because he has stayed healthy.
Calvin Johnson gives Stafford a sensational target and when the receiver is blanketed with defensive backs, there are other options to throw to thanks to the Martin Mayhew-led front office that has quickly reshaped a roster left in shambles by former general manager Matt Millen.
Ndamukong Suh was suspended for two games for the stomp seen around the world on Thanksgiving, but the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year without a doubt gives Detroit’s defense a player to build around for the future.
The Tigers, likewise, should be able to count on Justin Verlander to shut down opponents and slugger Miguel Cabrera to hit deep into this decade. Verlander won the MVP and AL Cy Young Award, becoming the first starting pitcher to pull off the feat since Roger Clemens did it in 1986. Cabrera finished among the top five in MVP voting for the third straight year — leading the majors with a .344 batting average, .448 on-base percentage and 48 doubles — despite a still-unresolved DUI case hanging over him.
The Red Wings extended their best-in-sports run of playoff appearances to 20, and their championship window stayed open when defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom returned to chase a fifth Stanley Cup and perhaps an eighth Norris Trophy that would equal Bobby Orr’s record total.
The Pistons finally found a new owner, Tom Gores, in April toward the end of a miserable season on the court. The lingering NBA lockout forced the Flint native and Michigan State graduate to wait until Dec. 26 for his team to open the season at Indiana. The three-time championship franchise, though, might fail to make the playoffs for a third straight year for the first time since 1995.
The Wolverines won 10 games, eight at the Big House, including a streak-snapping victory over rival Ohio State and were invited to a BCS game — the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3 against Virginia Tech — for the first time since the 2006 season in Hoke’s debut as head coach. Michigan will have dual-threat QB Denard Robinson back for his senior season in 2012, when stopping its worst losing streak in a half-century to the Spartans will be a priority.
Michigan State won a Big Ten-best seven conference games in the regular season, but had to play in its inaugural title game to earn its first trip to the Rose Bowl since the 1987 season. The Spartans lost to Wisconsin in heartbreaking fashion and fell to the Outback Bowl and a matchup with Georgia. They will have to break in someone new to replace Kirk Cousins next season, but a solid running game and stout defense might make up for that.
Beilein has built a program which is expected to play in the NCAA tournament in consecutive years for the first time since the mid-1990s, overcoming the early departure of guard Darius Morris by signing standout Trey Burke. Izzo led Michigan State to a 14th straight NCAA appearance in 2011, and do-it-all forward Draymond Green has enough of a supporting cast to make the green and white a team no one will be excited to match up with in mid-March.
For a change, sports fans in the state will have some entertainment options beyond football, baseball, hockey and hoops in 2012.
Professional golf will be back in Michigan for the first time since Tiger Woods won the 2009 Buick Open. The Senior PGA Championship will be hosted by the Golf Club at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor over Memorial Day weekend, and the U.S. Senior Open is scheduled for July at Indianwood Golf and Country Club in Lake Orion.
The Motor City, naturally, is back in the auto racing business. The IndyCar Series will make its return to Belle Isle in June, the first open-wheel championship race in the city since 2008.