Mark Dantonio has built a winning culture in East Lansing
After a 2016 campaign that saw Michigan State win just three games, it's safe to say that the majority of the Spartan faithful would consider 2017 a resounding success. In fact, I venture to guess that the vast majority of the fans from any program would consider Michigan State's 2017 season a success.
Mark Dantonio rallied his team to a 10-win season, capping it off with a 42-17 drubbing of Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.
Playing in the Big Ten East is a daunting task year in, year out. That said, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Michigan State's chances in 2018. Here are five of them.
1. A culture of winning
This is not clichÃ© or hyperbole. Mark Dantonio has created an identity for Michigan State football. The Spartans are physical on both sides of the ball. They execute well and they know exactly who they are. Those things have shaped a winning culture in East Lansing. Even after a three-win season, Dantonio and his staff never lost sight of what they wanted this team to be. As long as Dantonio is at the helm, the Spartans expect to win every game they play.
2. Returning talent
The Spartans were extremely young in 2017, with only a handful of seniors playing major roles through the season. The offensive line will return four players with significant starting experience. All of the team's top skill players return and the defense loses only two starters off a unit that was one of the nation's 10 best overall. They'll be one of the more seasoned programs in the Big Ten in 2018.
3. The loss of star power in the Big Ten East
Programs like Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan loses stars all the time. They simply reload and rarely miss a beat. When, however, they do miss those beats, it's often early in the season when the new, young stars are still trying to get their feet under them. Penn State is losing elite playmakers on both sides of the ball. Ohio State is losing a quarterback with three years' worth of starting experience and a half dozen defensive players to the NFL draft. Michigan is losing significant leadership on the offensive line and in the backfield. Those personnel losses could all translate to early-season hiccups, potentially giving the Spartans a leg up in the Big Ten East.
4. Brian Lewerke
Lewerke (above, right) was one of the most underrated dual-threat quarterbacks in the country in 2017. His nearly 3-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio combined with more than 500 rushing yards made it very difficult for opposing staffs to put together a game plan to stop him. He also made the Spartan offense more dynamic that it has been during Dantonio's tenure. Now with a full season as a starter under his belt, we may see Lewerke as one of the top signal-callers in all of college football in 2018.
Michigan State's toughest non-conference game will likely be the trip to Arizona State on Sept. 8. The Spartans will play both Michigan and Ohio State in East Lansing. As far as Big Ten West crossover games, the toughest opponent looks to be Northwestern — another home game for the Spartans. The toughest road crossover game will be a trip to Lincoln to face a Nebraska program in the midst of a rebuild. Another 10-win season is very much in the cards for Dantonio's bunch in 2018.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo!, SBNation and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.