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Michigan State's Brian Allen and Felton Davis talk about the zoo and bowl prep. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News

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San Diego — It’s hard to run into Brian Allen or Chris Frey these days without seeing a smile on their faces.

Whether it’s walking off the practice field or seeing animals up close and personal at the San Diego Zoo on Monday, the Michigan State captains are at ease these days. At ease because they were at the forefront of the Spartan turnaround, the one that landed Michigan State here on the West Coast for Thursday’s Holiday Bowl matchup with Washington State.

It’s not one many would have predicted back in August, and even that day when Frey, the senior linebacker, and Allen, the senior center, were named the team’s two captains, a nine-win season with a chance for No. 10 came with pretty long odds.

But here they are, ranked No. 16 in the final College Football Playoff poll, getting ready to take on No. 18 Washington State. Both teams finished the regular season at 9-3 and both made a push late in the year for a shot at their conference championship game.

For Michigan State, though, it came on the heels of the worst season in Mark Dantonio’s tenure and after an offseason full of turmoil.

So, with the season set to start, the program turned to Allen and Frey, two players who had seen the highs of winning Big Ten titles and playing in the playoffs to the lows of last season’s disappointment.

It’s clear to see, then, why neither seemed to be carrying much stress as they walked around the zoo on Christmas, soaking up the sun and examining the animals up close.

“Anytime you go to a bowl game, being in a different spot, a different city it’s pretty cool,” Allen said, never one to spend too much time looking past the moment. “I’ve never been here, so it’s been pretty cool to be here in general. It’s cool to be here with my teammates and practicing out here. It’s just exciting.”

It’s exciting when something that had been taken for granted — playing in a bowl game every year — disappeared so swiftly. Michigan State had in each of Dantonio’s first nine seasons before last season’s collapse and Allen and Frey were a part of that run.

Both played in the first trip to the Cotton Bowl in 2014 when the Spartans rallied to beat Baylor and both were key parts to the playoff run and subsequent loss to Alabama. They were both in the thick of 3-9, too.

So, when they were tabbed the team’s leaders at the start of the season, they knew what was at stake.

“As a senior leader on this team, it was an awesome experience to know that when this team was handed over to you to be a leader we were in a low spot,” Frey said. “To be able to say where we are now on this day and to know the leaders on this team have taken this team and put it back where it’s supposed to be is an unbelievable accomplishment and it means the world to us.”

More:Zoo trip lightens MSU’s mood before Holiday Bowl

Both have gone about things in different ways this season. Allen has been the anchor of a young offensive line, pushing his inexperienced teammates through what can best be described as an inconsistent season.

But Allen was the constant, the player who could be counted on every snap, even for a young quarterback.

“He’s a guy I trust,” sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “He’s good at making all the precheck stuff, which is still something I’m still working on. He’s been great for me, just having him be able to do that and trusting him to do the right thing.”

For Frey, the production wasn’t what it has been throughout his career, and he’s spent as much time late in the season grooming younger players like Tyriq Thompson and Antjuan Simmons.

“It’s nice for us to be able to have depth and to have the guy behind us — for us, as starters — to be able to trust the guy behind us knowing that, you know if we need two to three plays off, they’re going to come in and be fine,” Frey said. “They’re going to make plays and they know what they’re doing. So it’s huge for this defense, huge for this defense overall to be able to have extra linebackers, leaders on this defense that can come in and take control.”

They’ll be the ones taking control moving forward. They’ll do so thanks to the leadership Allen and Frey provided.

For one more game, though, it’s their show and they’re going to enjoy every moment.

“I’m just excited to have this opportunity for this team,” Frey said. “It’s a final cap to a great season but will help looking forward to 2018.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

Holiday Bowl

Michigan State vs. Washington State

Kickoff: 9 p.m. Thursday, SDCCU Stadium, San Diego

TV/radio: FS1/760

Records: Michigan State 9-3, Washington State 9-3

Line: Michigan State by 1

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