EAST LANSING, Michigan — The only way Michigan State can really top last season is to win a national championship, and goals like that can be daunting — especially in August.
So coach Mark Dantonio wants to focus more on the process than any potential outcomes that would be months away.
"I think the bottom line is for a football team — because the ball's going to bounce certain ways: Do you play hard? Are you resilient? Do you prepare? Do you do everything that you can do to be successful? Do you carry yourself on and off the field correctly?" Dantonio said. "Nationally, the general public basically evaluates you, 'Hey, do you win or do you lose?' And we won a lot of games last year, but there's always something that you can do to do a little bit better."
Last season's Big Ten title and Rose Bowl victory was the culmination of Michigan State's steady improvement in Dantonio's seven seasons at the helm. It will be hard to match the excitement Spartans fans felt when their school played in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988 — but this season's team returns plenty of talent, so there's no reason for Dantonio to feel satisfied with one great year.
"We're going to dream big," Dantonio said. "What's been established is that we've been to the Rose Bowl, and we won the Rose Bowl, we won the Big Ten championship. That's been established. What we do beyond that remains to be seen."
Dantonio spoke for about 30 minutes at media day Monday, and although some of his comments sounded like typical coachspeak, the Spartans understand the value of focusing on one game and one practice at a time. At the beginning of last season, Michigan State looked nothing like a Big Ten powerhouse, with its offense struggling to move the ball even against weaker competition.
By November, however, quarterback Connor Cook had become more comfortable, and the Spartans were able to ride an improving offense and devastating defense to an unbeaten Big Ten season.
Cook is back, but that defense lost linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen as well as defensive backs Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis. The Spartans will be tested almost immediately. After opening against Jacksonville State, Michigan State travels west to face Oregon and its fast-paced, dynamic offense.
Of course, even that game is about a month away, so defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi didn't want to talk about Oregon much.
"We actually ran a few Jacksonville State plays today. We've studied probably a week on Oregon during the summer," he said. "We're ready for them, but that's over with. We've got all our preparation. We're not thinking about them right now. We're thinking about ourselves, getting better fundamentally, knowing what we're doing, and then focus on Jacksonville State."
Still, the Oregon game underscores the fact that there are always new challenges on the horizon — more chances for the Spartans to prove they belong among the nation's elite.
"Win or lose, we'll have a better understanding of how we need to improve after that game," defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun said. "As a kid, I feel like everyone looks at Oregon, and you see the jerseys, and everyone loves all this. I really can't wait to play there, because I want to see how it is. I've never been."
The Big Ten schedule starts about a month after that game, and three of Michigan State's toughest-looking matchups — against Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State — will be at home.
"There's higher expectations. You have to manage those expectations," Dantonio said. "You have to keep things real for your players, but also continue to try and climb a ladder or two."