EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- For a program that hasn't had back-to-back winning seasons in nearly two decades, there's an optimistic buzz surrounding Michigan State football these days.
Several key players are back from last year's 7-6 team. The school is wrapping up a $15.5 million expansion and renovation of the football facilities. Coach Mark Dantonio is back for his second year. And some recruiting analysts say the Spartans' early haul for the incoming class of 2009 is among the nation's best.
But here's a word of caution for Spartan fans planning on a jump to the Big Ten's upper echelon: Optimism has run rampant before, only to be quieted by midseason. Michigan State hasn't had two consecutive winning seasons since 1989-90 under former coach George Perles.
The Spartans never had a losing season under Nick Saban in the late 1990s, but they never had back-to-back winners, either. Saban's teams twice finished 6-6 during his five seasons in East Lansing.
Michigan State had winning records in 2001 under Bobby Williams and in 2003 under John L. Smith. Neither coach was able to build on the momentum and neither lasted much longer with the program.
Dantonio wants to prove things are different on his watch.
"We're on first base trying to get to second," Dantonio said. "It's important to take a step forward, not a step back."
Each of Michigan State's six losses last year were by seven points or less, including a 24-21 loss to Boston College in the Champs Sports Bowl. Two defeats came in overtime.
Michigan State has put an emphasis on finishing games more strongly in 2008. Last year's near misses also leave the Spartans expecting a better record this year.
Veterans say the offseason strength and conditioning program was more grueling than ever. The program included more running and for the first time included work with a speed coach.
"Last season we set a foundation, but 7-6 is not where this program aspires to be," quarterback Brian Hoyer said. "We want to be on top of the Big Ten, and being 7-6 is not going to get you there."
Hoyer and running back Javon Ringer combine to give the Spartans a solid, experienced starting backfield. They are two of only 13 seniors in Michigan State's core playing group.
Ringer gained 1,447 yards rushing last season, the most by any Spartan since Blake Ezor in 1988, and is one of the nation's better running backs. But this year, he won't have bruiser Jehuu Caulcrick to spell him and keep him fresh, particularly in short yardage situations. Caulcrick set a school record with 21 rushing touchdowns last season.
Ringer -- a 5-foot-9, 202-pounder -- says he won't shy away from the extra carries.
"I know more of it is going to go on my shoulders," Ringer said. "I'm looking forward to it."
The Spartans believe they have talented backup runners in A.J. Jimmerson, Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett.
Hoyer threw for 2,725 yards and 20 TDs against 11 interceptions last season.
Receivers will try to collectively replace Devin Thomas, who left Michigan State a year early and now is with the NFL's Washington Redskins. Mark Dell and Deon Curry each had 20 or more catches last season and are among the leading returnees.
The offensive line returns tackle Jesse Miller, guard Roland Martin and center Joel Nitchman. The defensive line has holes to fill but could be bolstered by Cincinnati transfer Trevor Anderson, a Detroit native who started for Dantonio with the Bearcats in 2005 and 2006. Anderson, a defensive end, led Cincinnati in sacks in '06.
Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, both sophomores, lead a young group of linebackers. Otis Wiley, Kendell Davis-Clark, Roderick Jenrette, Chris L. Rucker and Ross Weaver are among those giving the Spartans a deep and experienced defensive backfield.
Punter Aaron Bates and kicker Brett Swenson both return on special teams.
The Spartans' quest for a winning season starts with a tough road trip Aug. 30 at California. The Spartans get Notre Dame, Ohio State and Wisconsin at home but must travel to Michigan and Penn State.
Michigan State skips Illinois and Minnesota in the Big Ten's rotating schedule.