Team preview: Michigan State

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(All information as of June 20, 2007)


They're starting over again at Michigan State. Since Nick Saban bolted for LSU in 1999, two failed hires in a row -- Bobby Williams, then John L. Smith -- have set back a program that appears to have all the support and materials necessary to flourish. MSU fans, whose patience has been tested over the years, hope Mark Dantonio is the man who will deliver stability.

Smith finally bottomed out last season. After a sparkling 8-5 debut in 2003 that helped the Spartans forget the disastrous end of Williams' tenure, Smith's second team stumbled to a 5-7 season. Still, signs of progress were apparent after Drew Stanton finally assumed the starting quarterback job. A triple-overtime loss at rival Michigan was devastating, considering the Spartans led 27-10 with six minutes left in regulation. But it also showed the potential at hand.

The 2005 campaign started as well as could be expected. MSU was 4-0, including an overtime win at Notre Dame, and ranked in the top 15 with Michigan due for a visit to Spartan Stadium. Smith was close to cementing himself and his program in East Lansing. But kicking woes led to an overtime loss to the Wolverines. The next week, the Spartans led for most of the game but collapsed late in a loss at Ohio State. A tailspin ensued, resulting in a 5-6 finish and growing disenchantment with the direction of the program.

As the 2006 season approached, it was clear Smith's seat was rather toasty. He had not endeared himself to the MSU community, rarely showing up in public and turning down speaking events all over the state. His quirky personality was wearing thin. His average annual salary of $1.6 million was brought up regularly. But with Stanton leading the way as a senior, the Spartans started 3-0, including a convincing blowout at Pittsburgh. A prime time home battle with Notre Dame was perhaps the last chance to quiet the anti-Smith sentiment.

It was a very familiar affair. MSU came out blazing on a rainy, raucous evening, building a 17-0 lead. It was 37-21 midway through the fourth quarter but somehow ended 40-37 in Notre Dame's favor. A late Stanton interception that led to a touchdown was the difference. Despair overwhelmed Smith's fragile team. A homecoming loss the next week to lowly Illinois left no doubt about where this was headed.

The Spartans lost eight of their last nine games to finish 4-8. That included a 38-7 home loss to Ohio State, an embarrassing afternoon for MSU with an overwhelming Ohio State presence in the stands. The lone victory came at Northwestern, a Stanton-led 41-38 comeback after MSU trailed 38-3. It was the biggest comeback in Division I-A history. But the decision on Smith had already been made.

After MSU lost 46-21 at Indiana the next week,
the administration made it official -- Smith was out.