Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is optimistic that his team can win a few more close games after last season's 7-6 effort.
When you first hear Mark Dantonio talk about Michigan State, it's hard to tell if he's a baseball coach, a teenager discovering hormones or a football coach mixing metaphors.
"Where we sit right now as a program, we're on first base," Dantonio said. "We're on first base trying to get to second. It's important for us to take a step forward, not a step back and move forward with a quest for a championship, and I do believe that's where we're headed."
The Spartans went 7-6 in Dantonio's first season, losing 24-21 to Boston College in the Champ Sports bowl. It marked Michigan State's first bowl appearance since 2003.
With a couple better bounces - or better play in the fourth quarter - the Spartans could have had several more wins. All six losses were by 7 points or less, including two in overtime.
"Taking the next step is finishing close games and coming down to the clutch and producing at the end of the game," said quarterback Brian Hoyer, whose 131.9 passer rating was fifth in the Big Ten. "That's where we're going to take the next step."
With Hoyer and running back Javon Ringer returning, the Spartans have offensive firepower, though they will have three new starters on their offensive line.
ESPN guru Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Ringer as top senior running back in the country. Among Big Ten returnees, only Ohio State's Chris Wells ran for more than Ringer's 1,447 yards last year.
"I've heard a little about it but I'm not looking through every single magazine," Ringer said. "For myself I hope and pray I'm very successful and can move on to the next level. But the more our team is successful the more looks we'll all get."
A pair of sophomore linebackers, Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, head the defense. Jones led all Big Ten freshman with 78 tackles.
Michigan State plays a difficult schedule, ranked 13th in the country. The Spartans open the season at California and miss Minnesota on their Big Ten slate.
But with Ringer running, a solid defense and improved play finishing games, Michigan State believes it has what it takes to reach a better bowl game, with an outside shot at a New Year's Day bowl. If that all comes together for the Spartans, 2008 certainly can be considered a home run.
Maybe even a grand slam.