Published: Aug 06, 2012 4:58 PM EDT
Updated: Aug 07, 2012 6:31 AM EDT

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Mark Dantonio spoke of unfinished business in his sixth season as Michigan State's head football coach, but the growth in years one through five is unmistakable.

After back-to-back 11-win seasons, a Big Ten title, a berth in the first conference championship game and a triple-overtime bowl win over Georgia, the Spartans have gained national respect and stamped themselves as a Rose Bowl contender.

"We're not there yet," Dantonio said. "But that's our goal. . . . I think we're rising to the top as we move forward. Where do I see our program right now? It's stronger than it was when I came. Nobody can refute that."

With 24 league wins the past four seasons, three more than any team in the Big Ten, and four straight victories over Michigan, the Spartans have every right to think they can play in their first BCS bowl and earn their first trip to Pasadena in 25 years.

"I embrace it," Dantonio said of some lofty expectations. "I think we have very high goals and very high standards we're trying to keep. You always want to get better. I think that's the message here, even when you look at the Super Bowl champions."

Michigan State has eight starters back from one of the country's top defenses. The big question is whether fourth-year junior Andrew Maxwell can replace school career passing king Kirk Cousins and a young group of wide receivers can do the job against a demanding schedule.

That challenge begins when Boise State visits on Aug. 31. The Spartans and Broncos have combined for 46 wins the past two seasons.

"We've definitely got a long way to go," said defensive end William Gholston, one of the nation's top pass rushers. "Until I'm perfect, I've got a lot of room to grow. . . . But we're all faster. We know where to be. We know what to expect. And we know how to counteract it."

Gholston had five tackles for losses in a 33-30 marathon win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 2, a game the Spartans trailed 16-0 at halftime. And with help end Marcus Rush, linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, corners Johnny Allen and Darqueze Dennard and big-play safety Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State could again have one of the top-rated defenses in the country.

The offense returns four starting linemen and versatile running back Le'Veon Bell, a nimble 244-pounder who can catch the ball, spin past defenders and run with power. That should be a comfort while Maxwell, a three-year understudy, develops.

"He hasn't taken the game over and made that play at the end of the game," Dantonio said. "But he's a very confident person. And he doesn't let things bother him. When they say he has swag, I think he lets things roll off his shoulders. He understands the pressures of playing quarterback and the pressures of playing here. He has seen it firsthand. He has seen Kirk grow in his three years as a starter. And I'm very confident in Andrew."

Maxwell was 18-for-26 for 171 yards last season, with one touchdown pass and no interceptions. Teammates say he has a stronger arm than Cousins, and he was a 6-foot-7 high jumper in high school.

"We have the team to do it and the coaches to do it," Bell said. "We just have to work hard and get it. This team is ready. We're hungry to get back to the position we were in last year and overcome the last barrier this year."

A crushing 42-39 loss to Wisconsin last December in Indianapolis kept the Spartans from realizing their primary goal, a trip to the Rose Bowl. But after responding with their first bowl triumph in a decade, that loss to the Badgers made Michigan State's players and coaches realize how close they are - and that close isn't good enough.