- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's hard to say that any Big Ten team is truly a rising program.
Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State are all established brands, though each is looking to make a comeback on the national scene in their own ways. Wisconsin, after a run of success that includes two straight Rose Bowls, can't be considered a climber. Other programs, like Northwestern and Illinois, have humps to get over, while others like Minnesota and Indiana have a long way to go.
But if there's one team that appears on the verge of a breakthrough, at least nationally, it's Michigan State.
This is not exactly a new development. The Spartans have won 11 games in each of the past two years, achieving that feat in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history. After beating Georgia in the Outback Bowl, they finished No. 11 in the Associated Press Top 25 and No. 10 in the USA Today coaches' poll. It was the program's first top 10 finish since 1999 and only the third top 10 coaches' poll finish since 1991.
Big Ten observers know just how good Mark Dantonio's team has been as it has gone 22-5 the past two years, including a 14-2 mark in regular-season conference play. But the Spartans do remain a little bit under the radar from a national perspective.
That could change this year. Both Adam and I have Michigan State ranked in the top 10 to begin the season and as our preseason favorite to win the Big Ten.
"I do feel like we're coming," Dantonio told ESPN.com in April. "But this conference is so competitive, how do you rise up? Every time you're picked high, something happens."
You can understand Dantonio's concern. The Spartans finished in a three-way tie for the Big Ten title in 2010 but watched as Wisconsin and Ohio State claimed the league's two BCS bids. Last year, Michigan State was potentially a running-into-the-kicker penalty away from beating the Badgers in the Big Ten championship game; instead, they went to the Outback Bowl while Michigan -- a team they beat handily that finished second in the Legends Division -- made the Sugar Bowl.
The Rose Bowl remains an elusive goal in East Lansing. Michigan State hasn't been there since 1988 but is constantly reminded of it with Rose Bowl logos all over its football complex.
"We really want to win a Big Ten championship, and take a step past the Legends Division," center Travis Jackson said.
This year's team might be the one to do it. Despite losing three-year starting quarterback Kirk Cousins, the Spartans are deep on both sides of the ball and could field a dominating defense that returns eight starters. That defense is not just Big Ten good but possibly good enough for the team to make a run at bigger things. Defensive end William Gholston isn't afraid to aim for a national title.
"It's like when you're a kid, and you earn a little allowance and you want this toy," Gholston told ESPN.com this spring. "You're working so hard to get the toy but you're like two dollars short. And you know your parents aren't going to give you the extra two dollars, because they want you to work for it. So you go out and you work hard, and you get more than two dollars so you can buy two of those toys.
"The only result we want this season is that crystal ball at the end. It has to be one of the best feelings in the world to hold that up."
Michigan State would have to make a big leap to experience that feeling. But the Spartans have the potential to make a major breakthrough in 2012.
It's hard to say that any Big Ten team is truly a rising program.Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State are all established brands, though each is looking to make a comeback on the national scene in their own ways.