By Shannon Shelton
EAST LANSING -- When, nearly eight years ago, Michigan State scheduled a 2008 game with California, no one could have predicted how good -- or bad -- the Spartans would be now or whether a season opener against the Golden Bears would all but guarantee a loss. How the Spartans will perform in Berkeley on Aug. 30 remains to be seen, but the chances of an MSU victory are stronger than they would have been if the game had been scheduled as the 2007 season opener, or as the first game during some of the four seasons in which John L. Smith was coach.
After going 7-6 in Mark Dantonio's first year, the Spartans have a golden opportunity to make good on the high expectations they've set for themselves by opening the 2008 season against Cal. Although the game is two weeks away, the Spartans can't help but discuss the impact the matchup might have on their season and their hopes of playing in a January bowl game this year. "If we go in there and get a big win over an opponent like that at their place, that can be a springboard for us for the rest of the season," senior running back Javon Ringer said. MSU will also be playing in the coveted 8 p.m. time slot on ABC in front of a national audience, and can make a statement about the program's strength with a strong performance. A win would give the Spartans greater legitimacy on a national scale and help MSU shed its perception as a team that starts fast against average opponents but fades late against tougher competition.
"I think they have a history here of fattening everybody up after a so-so season and saying great things are on the horizon," Dantonio said. "I think that's the natural progression here. I think also the progression is they want to deflate you very quickly, as well. So we'll step up to the plate right away. We'll step right in there the first game and get ready to play." One would have to go back to 1995 to find an MSU season opener of similar magnitude. The Spartans hosted Nebraska in Nick Saban's first game as head coach and fell, 50-10. Expectations for that squad, however, weren't as high. In contrast, the 2008 team features a second-year coach aiming to ensure that MSU records consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1989-90.
Last season "we played a UAB team, a little bit better team (Bowling Green), a little bit better Pitt team. ... This year the Cal game comes right up on us," Dantonio said. "I think that's a good thing to find out exactly who we are early in the first game and then we can play accordingly from that." ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said during the Big Ten football meetings last month that MSU could win eight or nine games in 2008 -- but needed to have a good showing against Cal to make that possibility more likely.
"That's a huge game," Herbstreit said. "Cal's got a bit of a chip on its shoulder because they didn't have a great season last year. That place also gets a little bit loud, so it will be a good test. ... As we all know, when the Big Ten goes out West, it's always a challenge to deal with the time zone, the officiating and everything else, so we'll see if they can get it done."