NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — It wasn’t until November last year — after Michigan State pounded rival Michigan — that the idea of the Spartans playing in the Rose Bowl started to feel like a serious possibility.
This season, coach Mark Dantonio’s team won’t have the luxury of remaining under the radar.
“You’re always trying to I think build on things you’ve been able to accomplish and we are trying to do that,” Dantonio said. “But we have got to handle success, and I guess that’s been one of the main focuses or topics here.”
The Spartans went undefeated in the Big Ten last year, which was a surprising rise after the team could hardly move the ball on offense during the first couple games of the season. The question now is whether Michigan State can handle heightened expectations. Dantonio’s program has always seemed to have a bit of a chip on its shoulder. That’s an attitude that has served Michigan State well recently, but will the Spartans be able to maintain that hunger after everything they accomplished last season?
“We still feel that we need to prove ourselves nationally,” defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun said. “Nationally, we don’t still feel like we’re respected in the way that we should. And maybe we shouldn’t be respected that way because we haven’t done it on a consistent basis. That’s our goal. Try to be consistent.”
Here are five things to watch as the Spartans try to repeat as Big Ten champions — and possibly secure a berth in the four-team playoff for the national championship at season’s end:
COOK’S POTENTIAL: After being named the starting quarterback early in the season, Cook looked more comfortable as the year went on. He finished with 22 touchdown passes and six interceptions, and with that extra experience under his belt, he could help Michigan State’s offense reach another level in 2014.
TOUGH DIVISION: After the latest realignment of the Big Ten, Michigan State is now in the same division as Ohio State, the team the Spartans beat in the conference title game last year. It figures to be a spirited race in the East Division, which also includes Michigan and Penn State.
Michigan State hosts Michigan on Oct. 25, then has a weekend off before hosting Ohio State on Nov. 8. The Nebraska game Oct. 4 is also at home, but the regular-season finale against Penn State is on the road.
NONCONFERENCE SHOWDOWN: Before Michigan State even begins its defense of the Big Ten title, the Spartans will play a marquee September game at Oregon. The Ducks’ formidable, quick-paced offense should be quite a test for a Michigan State defense that was among the nation’s best last year.
REPLACING STANDOUTS: Linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen are gone from that terrific defense, and so are defensive backs Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis. Calhoun will likely be the center of attention on that side of the ball after he had 7 1/2 sacks a season ago.
“He’s done a great job from the leadership standpoint,” Dantonio said. “I think actually his personality, when he has meetings and such, he likes to have a good time and he keeps things fun for our players. He’s always sort of up. I really don’t ever see Shilique down in the dumps.”
RUNNING HARD: Although it took Cook a little while to grow into his role at quarterback, Jeremy Langford turned in a remarkable 2013 season as the team’s top running back, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Langford had eight straight 100-yard games during one stretch, capped by a 128-yard performance in the win over Ohio State.
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