ESPN.com today is examining the teams built to win for the 2013 season or, more accurately, the teams that need to win now because an uncertain future awaits. The Big Ten lacks a team that perfectly fits this definition, although some squads are senior-heavy and some face tougher challenges ahead because of the league's new division alignment.
Michigan State jumps out as a team that has urgency to win in 2013, not as much because of its roster dynamic but because of changes within the league, including the ones happening at the state's other Big Ten program.
Coach Mark Dantonio has made the Spartans into a consistent winner, and the program recorded back-to-back 11-win seasons in 2010 and 2011. Pegged by many, including yours truly, to win the Big Ten last fall, Michigan State backslid and went 6-6 in the regular-season before beating TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Although the Spartans won their second consecutive bowl game, they lost some of the momentum they had built.
It's important for Michigan State to regain the form it showed in 2010 and 2011 this coming season. The Spartans once again should field a nationally elite defense, led by linebacker Max Bullough and cornerback Darqueze Dennard, after finishing fourth in the FBS last season and sixth in 2011. Seven defensive starters return along with several key reserves, and coordinator Pat Narduzzi once again will be directing the unit.
Is Michigan State's offense built to win this season? It's a tough case to make with question marks throughout the unit, starting at quarterback. But Michigan State lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points last season. It doesn't need to be Texas A&M or Oregon on offense. If the unit is just marginally better and the defense holds steady or improves, the Spartans will be in the mix for a Legends Division title.
The biggest reasons Michigan State must win in 2013 don't have much to do with the current roster. Beginning in 2014, the Spartans will enter the snake pit called the Big Ten's East Division, where they'll contend with Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. Speaking of Michigan, the Wolverines are no longer the program Michigan State outperformed on the field and on the recruiting trail from 2008 to 2011. Michigan's recruiting has surged under Brady Hoke, and the Wolverines currently boast the nation's No. 1 class, according to RecruitingNation. Although Michigan State's recruiting remains solid, it's hard to ignore what's happening in Ann Arbor.
And while Dantonio's coaching staff continuity has played a big role in Michigan State's rise, it's only a matter of time before Narduzzi, regarded as one of the nation's top assistants, moves on to a top job.
Another eight- or nine-win season wouldn't derail Michigan State in 2013, especially if it comes with another bowl win. But if the Spartans want to establish themselves in the Big Ten's upper crust before the divisions realign, the time is now.