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Postmortem 2015: Michigan State Spartans

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The Cotton Bowl was a horrendous failure, but the season was still a great success.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off of a 2014 that featured a couple of major disappointments but also a string of triumphs, Michigan State started the season clearly looking up at the Buckeyes in the division, conference, and national title races, with sidebar storylines of another early-season shot at the Ducks and the arrival of Jim Harbaugh presenting diversions along the way.

Preseason and Nonconference

The annual offseason turnover innate to college football showed itself in a manner unusual for Mark Dantonio: staff turnover. Lauded defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi found an opportunity worth taking at Pitt, but the promotions of longtime assistants Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel into co-coordinator seats inspired some confidence that the transition wouldn't be too jarring. And although there were some personnel losses to replace, particularly at wide receiver and running back, the Spartans promised to be strong on both lines and returned one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Connor Cook.

MSU got more of a fight than they expected from Western Michigan in the season opener, but could be forgiven for looking ahead to what was billed as the season's best non-conference game: at home versus Oregon. Michigan State held on to win a back-and-forth thriller, but showed some concerning cracks in the secondary and on special teams. The win was what mattered, though, and for the moment, those issues could be attributed to Oregon's otherworldly athletes. Of course, the Ducks would promptly melt down in the face of an avalanche of injuries over the next few weeks, but the win still confirmed that Michigan State belonged in the national title conversation.

The next two games with Air Force and Central Michigan passed uneventfully outside of concern about MSU not blowing their opponents out by enough. MSU had surprising trouble running the ball, but Aaron Burbridge exploded onto the scene as the B1G's best receiver. MSU could perhaps be accused of shutting it down before these games were truly decided - a theme which would continue into conference play.

Conference Part I: October of Discontent (With One Notable Exception)

Against inferior opposition in Purdue and Rutgers, MSU struggled to hang on to wins. Offensive line injuries further wrecked the run game and made it difficult to control the clock with a lead, as Mark Dantonio has always preferred to do, and the defense continued to yield big plays at times when they had to know the opponent would be looking for them. MSU did, for the record, win both of these games, which apparently isn't necessarily good enough.

Thus it was that, despite being 6-0, Michigan State went into the Big House on October 17 as an underdog. And, despite controlling the game from scrimmage, MSU's weak special teams play put them behind the eight ball. Michigan had the ball and a two-point lead with 10 seconds left, and had but to punt the ball away to secure the win and vindicate an offseason of loud, persistent chatter about a seismic shift in the state's balance of football power.

Mark Dantonio called Rangers, the Spartans brought 11, and the rest is history.

In their final game before the bye, MSU got a game effort from Indiana, notwithstanding the final score. Had Hoosier kicker Griffen Oakes not had the worst game of his life, the game may well have ended very differently. But when the dam broke, it broke wide open, and a close game through 3 quarters turned into a blowout.

Conference Part II: Disaster and Renewal

A loss like the Nebraska game had probably been a long time coming. MSU played with fire in allowing weaker opponents to stick around multiple times, and finally ran into a team with a good enough deep passing game to break through and take the lead late. And yes, Nebraska got a huge assist from a horrendously blown call very late in the game which gave them a lead they were not otherwise sure to get. Saying anything different is out of touch with reality. But no, the call didn't decide the game (even if it was about as close to doing so as a call can be with time left on the clock).

Seemingly attempting to atone for the Nebraska meltdown, the Spartan defense suffocated Maryland's ineffective offense the following week in an unremarkable win. The major story, however, was a shoulder injury to Connor Cook on a hit from Yannick Ngakoue. With a trip to Columbus looming and MSU's conference title hopes hanging in the balance, the senior QB's status was up in the air.

Come gametime, Cook remained on the sideline, helmetless. MSU went with a signal-calling combination of Tyler O'Conner and Damion Terry, and ground out enough offense to match a surprisingly punchless Buckeye offense, which neither tested the Spartans' porous secondary downfield nor leaned very heavily on workhorse Zeke Elliott. Slow-developing QB run after slow-developing QB run smashed J.T. Barrett into waves of Spartan defenders. And, with time winding down, kicker Michael Geiger earned himself infinite arm windmills and "fucking nailed it" (direct quote from Geiger).

Heading into the penultimate week of the regular season, the Spartans controlled their own destiny, but a loss to Penn State would mean the winner of Michigan-OSU would win the division. The Nittany Lions kept it close for a while, but a long fumble return TD by Pennsylvania native Demetrious Cox shortly before halftime appeared to break PSU's spirit. MSU punctuated the regular season by handing the ball to All-American center Jack Allen for a 9-yard rushing score, and if you're a PSU fan who's upset about that, maybe your starting MLB shouldn't get stiff-armed by an offensive lineman.

Postseason: Indianapolis and Dallas

Michigan State and Iowa played a classic in the B1GCCG, dominated by defense and field goal kicking. On the first play of the 4th quarter, Iowa struck gold on a long TD pass. The teams traded another possession, and then MSU embarked on a 22-play, 9:04 drive, culminating in a multiple-effort scoring reach by freshman RB L.J. Scott to seize their second conference title in three years.

That CCG, being a 4 vs 5 matchup, was a functional Playoff play-in game. MSU vaulted Oklahoma in the standings to draw Alabama in the Cotton Bowl semifinal. There was some discussion ahead of the game that this was probably the best matchup of the 3 other semifinalists the Spartans could have drawn because of the lack of a dynamic QB. Hindsight is 20/20, as it's hard to imagine Oklahoma or Clemson shutting the Spartans out.

The game could have been a contest, had Cook not stared down Burbridge and thrown a bad pick shortly before halftime. It was 10-0 Bama at that point, MSU had finally put a drive together, and going into the tunnel down 3 would have lent the second half a very different field. As we know, that didn't happen, Cyrus Jones got the pick, and after halftime, the Tide did what they do and snowed MSU under.

Turn time back to the eve of the 2015 college football season, tell a Spartan fan they would pull off a one-loss regular season, win another conference title, and get their first shot at the playoff, and 100 out of 100 would have been ecstatic to hear it. No, the Spartans weren't ready to step to the king of college football programs. Neither was anyone else other than an Ole Miss squad which got a +5 in the turnover column. Getting roughed up by a JV NFL team does nothing whatsoever to take the shine off of a 12-win conference championship season, featuring 4 tremendous wins that will be talked about for years to come.

Nothing is certain moving forward. Connor Cook, Jack Conklin, Shilique Calhoun, Jack Allen, and a number of other standouts leave; the offense, in particular, faces a 2012esque personnel shuffling. Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh aren't going away, even if OSU loses even more than MSU does. But if you believe the recruiting rankings, MSU is bringing in better talent than it ever has, and Mark Dantonio is still winning the big game far more often than he's losing it. Hard to be anything but satisfied with the program's trajectory and results.