Fun surrounded Mark Dantonio in Arizona on Thursday, in a spacious ballroom at the plush JW Marriott Camelback Inn -- or at least as much fun as a media event can allow.
His Michigan State players sat at tables spread throughout the room, joking around with each other when they weren't answering questions. Le'Veon Bell approached Dantonio's podium with a microphone and the pair laughed through a faux interrogation.
But when the subject of next season and its impact on the direction of his program came up, Dantonio set his jaw and turned serious.
"Next year's always a big year, isn't it?" he said. "It always is and it's no bigger than the year before. And to say it is sells our seniors short."
Dantonio is focused on sending those seniors off with a victory to cap a difficult final season, when the Spartans (6-6) take on TCU (7-5) on Saturday in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.
Regardless of that result and of the disappointment of a 2012 campaign that began with mammoth expectations, Dantonio and MSU athletic director Mark Hollis said Thursday that this football program is in tip-top shape and gave several reasons why.
MSU is 48-28 in six seasons under Dantonio, with a Big Ten co-championship, a Legends Division title, a record six straight bowl games, the best academic performance numbers this season in program history, a sharp increase in the output of players to the NFL and a sharp decrease in off-the-field issues.
Continuity, respectability and high expectations mark a program that was known mainly as erratic for decades before Dantonio inherited it.
"It's as strong as it's been in a long, long time," Hollis said. "You've got to look at things not in terms of one game or one season, you've got to look at the full flow of the program. Like anything in life, you have leaps forward and steps backward."
Still, this season was more than a slight stumble for a team pointing toward the Rose Bowl, and MSU's offensive ineptitude was more than slightly surprising.
The Spartans may be losing two top performers from that offense: running back Le'Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims, along with defensive end Will Gholston. All three juniors are considering an early jump to the NFL.
Notre Dame is in the BCS title game, Michigan is coming back under Brady Hoke, and Ohio State went 12-0 under first-year coach Urban Meyer.
Those three traditional powers have always made recruiting tough for the Spartans, and there is an urgency in East Lansing to demonstrate that 2012 was an aberration and not a momentum killer.
"You don't want to have back-to-back years where you're kind of average," MSU junior left tackle Dan France said.
"We want to go out next year and let people know we're still that dominant team we were the past two years," MSU junior safety Isaiah Lewis said. "We're not gonna back down. Those last two years weren't a fluke."
The Spartans, led by quarterback and captain Kirk Cousins, went 9-1 in games decided by 10 points or fewer in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. They were 3-5 this season with a new starting quarterback in Andrew Maxwell, a brand-new receiving corps and an injury-riddled offensive line.
"You've got to win the close games," Dantonio said. "That's what sets you apart. Sometimes that's experience, sometimes that's a play call, sometimes that's an injury. There are so many different factors. That hangs by a thread. But when you look at the total aspect of our football program, we're healthy."
He cited a cumulative team grade-point average of 2.72, the highest since MSU started calculating cumulative team GPA in 1995.
MSU also has its highest all-time APR score -- a measure of players retained and making progress toward degrees -- of 954. And associate athletic director Jim Pignataro, director of MSU's student-athlete support services, said MSU's federal graduation rate of 70% is the highest since calculations began in the 1980s.
Pignataro credited Dantonio's emphasis on education, his staff's cohesiveness and the recruitment of players who are serious about education.
"This is as sound and as organized and as accountable as we've ever been," Pignataro said.
Of course, most fans are much more concerned with results on the field, at games that are not cheap to attend.
MSU's offense is a question, and so is the Spartans' talent level in light of the apparent stockpiling of top players going on in Ann Arbor, South Bend and Columbus.
Recruiting rankings never favored Dantonio's classes, yet he supplied the NFL with seven players from last season's team. More are on the way soon, but what about behind them?
Dantonio acknowledged that "it's always been tough" to recruit against the powers of the region but also said: "We're gonna get our share, and in the end, we're gonna get the people that want to be with us, and that's the bottom line."
Dantonio's staff has a strong and growing track record of player evaluation and development. Current pros Cousins, Jerel Worthy, Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham weren't celebrated recruits, and the same is true of Bell.
"I will say that we fill our needs," Dantonio said. "We look for specific needs relative to who we are as a football team. And we've taken the right people. I think chemistry is so important. And overachieving is so important. You have to have players that want to overachieve, whether they're a four-star, three-star or two-star."
Next season's team looks good on paper, regardless of the three juniors. The schedule is favorable, with no Ohio State, Wisconsin or Penn State.
Bouncing back from this season -- as MSU did in 2010 after a 6-7 setback in 2009 -- is a viable pursuit. And a serious one.
"We're gonna be good," Dantonio said. "There's no question we're gonna be good."
Contact Joe Rexrode: 313-222-2625 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @joerexrode. Check out his MSU blog at freep.com/heyjoe.
Free Press beat writer Joe Rexrode will answer your MSU questions in a live chat at 1 p.m. Friday at freep.com/sports. Submit early questions here. Then come back Saturday night, as special writer Sean Merriman live-blogs the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
More Details: Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl
Matchup: Michigan State (6-6) vs. Texas Christian (7-5).
Kickoff: 10:15 p.m. Saturday, Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
Line: TCU by 2 1/2.
Five to watch in 2013
Michigan State juniors Le'Veon Bell, Will Gholston and Dion Sims haven't decided whether they'll return for their senior seasons or head to the NFL. Whether they go or not, Joe Rexrode looks at five players who could be key for MSU in 2013.
Andrew Maxwell: It may be obvious, but Maxwell's growth will have much to say about the Spartans' Big Ten title hopes.
Lawrence Thomas: He should fortify the defensive line, but he also said he'd love to get a crack at tight end if Sims departs.
Demetrious Cox: Mark Dantonio said the freshman safety, who is redshirting, might be a starter by now had he been active this season, and that Cox will compete for a starting job next season.
Fou Fonoti: After missing most of this season with a foot injury, Fonoti should be a key part of the offensive line in 2013 -- at right or left tackle.
Nick Tompkins: Even if Bell pulls a surprise and stays, the redshirt freshman running back's speed will be utilized. If Bell goes, he's competing for a starting job.
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