EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Two seasons ago, LJ Scott fought his way to the goal line for the winning touchdown in Michigan State's victory over Iowa in the Big Ten title game.
Last year, he found out how fleeting success can be.
"Three and nine is something we didn't want to do, didn't obviously expect," Scott said. "The goal right now is put that behind us."
Michigan State's dreadful 3-9 season in 2016 came out of nowhere. This was a team that had just won its third Big Ten championship in six years, reaching college football's playoff in 2015. The Spartans even won their first two games last season before a loss to Wisconsin started a seven-game skid.
Then came an offseason that raised more serious questions about the state of the program. Four players were dismissed from the team amid sexual assault allegations.
Now Michigan State is an afterthought in the discussion about this year's playoff. The question is whether the Spartans can recapture what coach Mark Dantonio built in his first nine seasons at the helm.
"I'm not going to pump us up and say we're going to win 'x' amount of games," Dantonio said. "What I will say is we have an opportunity to play every single game and win, which has been the case here. I mean, that's been the case here really since I've come. We've been extremely competitive, and games hang by a thread. When you find the inches, you win the games."
A few more things to watch at Michigan State, which opens its season Sept. 2 at home against Bowling Green:
Scott is back after rushing for 994 yards last season, and fifth-year senior Gerald Holmes is also an experienced option in the backfield. Redshirt sophomore Brian Lewerke is the favorite to take over as the starting quarterback . He appeared in four games in 2016 before a season-ending broken leg.
The matchup with Michigan is always big, and it will take place Oct. 7 in Ann Arbor, but the Spartans will have to focus on more modest goals first. On Sept. 9, they'll host a Western Michigan team that made it to the Cotton Bowl a season ago. A victory in that game could give Michigan State some confidence.
Michigan State managed only 11 sacks all of last season. Shilique Calhoun had 10 ½ by himself for the Spartans in 2015. The Spartans had the nation's top-ranked rushing defense in 2014 and forced 34 turnovers, but defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi left after that season to become the head coach at Pittsburgh, and Michigan State hasn't been as formidable on that side of the ball since then.
Offensive lineman Brian Allen was one of only three Michigan State players to start all 12 games last year. He returns for his senior season.
"He's an outstanding football player. He's in his fourth year of playing, got a lot of experience," Dantonio said. "Fluctuates from 320 to 310, just depends on how much he eats at lunch, I guess."
After a nightmarish 2016 season and a tumultuous offseason, mere respectability would be a step forward for the Spartans. If they can make it to a bowl with at least six wins and avoid off-field problems, these last 12 months will look like more of an aberration. Michigan State will likely be a postseason bubble team. The final two games on the regular-season schedule — home against Maryland and at Rutgers — are winnable. The key is getting to that point with bowl hopes still intact.
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Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister