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Mark Dantonio struggles to find Cotton Bowl closure

Mark Dantonio will have to replace some key players in 2016, including finding a new starter at quarterback. Leon Halip/Getty Images

There’s a good chance that no one in America has heard more about Alabama’s 38-0 win at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl during the past few weeks than Becky Dantonio. Late last week, while unloading a list of some of his team’s shortcomings in that game, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio stopped himself and repeated something he’s been reminded of often in 2016.

"As my wife tells me," he said, "'Let it go. Just let it go.'"

That clearly hasn’t been easy for Dantonio. The coach called a press conference last Friday in part to try to put his ninth season as the Spartans head coach behind him. The timing -- the second day of an active recruiting period when most coaches are on the road – was unorthodox, and the public rehashing was a bit out of character for a normally laconic speaker.

There are some coaches who frequently use the microphones in front of them like a psychiatrist’s coach. Dantonio isn’t one of them.

“I think you’ve got to have closure,” he said Friday. “So I’ve got to have some closure, too.”

He went on to dissect the team’s worst loss since the last time they played Nick Saban’s Alabama team five years earlier.

How was the gap between the two top-notch programs still so large on New Year’s Eve? Dantonio’s thorough autopsy included: Alabama’s strength in the trenches, a Crimson Tide game plan that put his safeties and linebackers in a “Catch-22” bind, Michigan State’s game plan that failed to get the ball to the edge enough, nagging special teams issues, a few bones to pick with the referees, a lack of leadership (from himself and his veteran players) and a general sense of being “out of sorts” or overwhelmed by the size of the stage and the week’s media obligations.

In other words, a whole bunch of things forced the Spartans off-script in Dallas, and they all added up to the biggest blowout of bowl season.

“We were going to have to be at our best,” Dantonio said. “For whatever reason, we were not, and you have to take that into context in the whole thing. That being said, Alabama has a tremendous football team, and they certainly deserved the opportunity to go play in that national championship game. Not whining about it, just stating where we were at.”

Dantonio didn’t want his team to change its core identity in December to try to battle a similarly-built Alabama team. Looking back now, there are clearly a few things he’d like to change if given another shot. The more relevant question, though, as he and the rest of the Spartans move on is about the effect this game will have on future Michigan State teams.

The truth is probably not much. Changes are coming, but they would have arrived this offseason regardless of playoff results. Michigan State is losing the most productive senior class in its program’s history. It’s a group that includes record-setters at wide receiver and quarterback, three starting defensive linemen and three starting offensive linemen -- two of whom are All-Americans -- among others.

Next year’s Spartans will have to rely on a new starter at quarterback and call more frequently on the young, talented recruiting classes they have attracted. Dantonio and his staff have started evolving in the past few years, moving toward a higher-scoring offense and playing more freshmen than they have in the past. They have tackled change successfully (like the departure of longtime defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi a year ago). But they haven’t faced as many questions as they do this offseason in a long time.

The window isn’t closed for one of the most steady, turbulence-proof programs in the country, but the Big Ten’s East Division won’t make staying on top easy. The Spartans’ best chance for a national championship in 50 years slipped by in emphatic fashion this season. So while Dantonio looked back in search of closure, publicly sorting through the long, exhaustive list of problems that led to Michigan State’s demise in Dallas, it’s far more likely that the uncertainty of what lies ahead is what’s troubling him.