Michigan State made strides in Mark Dantonio's first two seasons as head coach, leading some to believe the program would truly get over the hump in 2009.
But after a rollercoaster of a season, it's clear Michigan State needs more time to become a consistent Big Ten title contender.
The Spartans weren't far away from doing big things this fall. They squandered second-half leads against Central Michigan, Notre Dame, Iowa and Minnesota, and recorded nice wins against both Northwestern and Purdue. But for a program that wants to join the Big Ten's upper crust, close enough simply isn't good enough.
Dantonio let his quarterback competition drag on well into the fall, even though sophomore Kirk Cousins clearly distinguished himself as the top signal caller. Cousins had some solid moments and should be one of the Big Ten's top quarterbacks next year. Michigan State boasted the Big Ten's top passing attack, as wideout Blair White earned All-Big Ten honors and B.J. Cunningham emerged as a threat.
Greg Jones continued to show why he's one of the nation's elite linebackers, earning Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year honors. But the Spartans secondary, billed as one of the team's deepest groups, fell well short of the mark against solid quarterbacks like Dan LeFevour, Jimmy Clausen, Scott Tolzien and Daryll Clark.
The season ended on a down note, as Michigan State got thrashed 42-14 by Penn State in the finale. Barely 24 hours later, a fight at a residence hall led to the dismissal of two players and the suspensions of eight others, so Michigan State will be very shorthanded in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
Offensive MVP: Kirk Cousins. He had some first-year-starter moments, but Cousins performed very well overall. He ranked second in the league in pass efficiency (145.2) with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The Spartans had a lot of youth at running back, but Cousins spearheaded the league's top passing attack. White also deserves a mention here.
Defensive MVP: Greg Jones. Jones has been a difference maker since the moment he arrived on campus, and he produced an All-America type season this fall. He ranked third nationally in total tackles (141) and led Big Ten linebackers with nine sacks. The junior is around the football on virtually every play.
Turning point: After a 1-3 start, Michigan State hosted a surging Michigan team and squandered a 14-point fourth-quarter lead. But the Spartans responded in overtime to notch a 26-20 win that sparked a three-game win streak. A second turning point came Oct. 24, as Michigan State saw a brilliant defensive performance go to waste as Iowa won on the final play.
What's next: The Spartans head to San Antonio to face a Texas Tech team that would have provided a formidable challenge even if Michigan State was at full strength. A shaky secondary will be put to the test against Taylor Potts and co. This is a big swing game for the Spartans before a crucial 2010 campaign.