PASADENA, Calif. -- No one would dispute that Michigan State's defense is the primary reason for the program's ascent. Especially after Wednesday's performance in the Rose Bowl.
The Spartan Dawgs showed they can be great even without a great player in Max Bullough, and stifled Stanford's power run game for the final three quarters of a 24-20 win. The fourth-down stop of fullback Ryan Hewitt, where a swarm of MSU defenders leaped over the pile, typified why Michigan State has gone from good to great.
But if you're searching for why MSU could keep the momentum going in the 2014 season, take a look at the other side of the ball. Michigan State's offense, which went from dysfunctional in September to efficient and, at times, explosive, could fuel the team this fall.
The Spartans return virtually all of their skill players, including quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and wide receivers Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery, Macgarrett Kings and Aaron Burbridge. Bennie Fowler likely would earn a sixth year of eligibility -- he missed the entire 2009 season and part of 2011 with injuries -- if he wants one.
The tight end group, used more late in the season, returns completely intact. Fullback Trevon Pendleton, who had a touchdown catch in the Rose Bowl, is only a sophomore.
"It's been a long journey, and seems like a long time ago that we were being asked that question about what's wrong with our offense," co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said last week. "It's been a process without a doubt, and it seemed like it took a long time, but it was a necessary process, and we're still not a finished product by any means now because I think we can continue to grow and get better."
MSU showed against Stanford that it can win big games by throwing the ball, as Cook repeatedly attacked the seams of the Cardinal defense to players like Kings and Lippett.
"They were very vulnerable," Kings told ESPN.com on the field afterward. "We weren't looking to attack it, but as the game went on, that's what was open so we just took it. I caught a couple over the middle … Guys were sagging off, sometimes they play regular Cover 2. It's all about reading coverages on the run and making plays."
A receiving corps that struggled to simply catch the ball, much less make plays, in 2012 went through a dramatic transformation when Cook took control. Cook will enter 2014 as one of the Big Ten's top quarterbacks after recording his first two career 300-yard passing performances in the league title game and the Rose Bowl.
Dual threat Damion Terry likely will enter the mix in some form in 2014. Perhaps MSU incorporates a package of plays for Terry, who redshirted this season after nearly playing in September.
It will be important to build depth behind Langford, a solid back but one who could platoon with a guy like Delton Williams, if Williams remains on offense.
MSU loses three fifth-year seniors along the offensive line, including co-captain Blake Treadwell, but the line subtly took a major step in 2013. This had been the unit holding back MSU from reaching levels like Wisconsin, Iowa and others had. The line seemed to turn a corner and can build behind players like Travis Jackson, Jack Allen and Jack Conklin, a redshirt freshman who started the final 10 games at left tackle.
The defense loses much more -- six starters, including standouts like Bullough, All-America cornerback Darqueze Dennard, linebacker Denicos Allen and safety Isaiah Lewis. MSU certainly can reload but might not be quite as elite as this year's unit.
The Spartans likely will lean more on their offense in 2014. And they should.