East Lansing— Barring an unexpected collapse from Ohio State over the final two games of the regular season, Michigan State's chances at playing in the Big Ten Championship game vanished two weeks ago when the Buckeyes walked out of Spartan Stadium with an impressive 49-37 victory.
But as No. 10 Michigan State (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) prepares to host Rutgers at noon Saturday for the first time as a member of the Big Ten, it hardly means there is nothing left to play for.
Aside from sending off 18 seniors in style, the Spartans are still aiming for a prominent bowl game, specifically one of the four College Football Playoff games not used in this year's semifinals.
"We have a chance to be a top-10 football team," coach Mark Dantonio said. "We still have a chance to go to one of those bowls that would put us in what I would consider the Rose Bowl one year and a bowl like that the next year. It would be a tremendous boost for the program, credibility, et cetera. We want to build on our resume.
"Quite frankly, this would be, again, if we finish like we hope, it would be another great football team here at Michigan State, one that would be talked about for years to come."
It might not measure up to last season's run to the Rose Bowl, but a win Saturday followed by a victory next week at Penn State would put the Spartans at 10 wins and a shot at 11 for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
And considering the Spartans are ranked No. 11 in the College Football Playoff rankings, a spot in the Orange, Fiesta, Cotton or Peach bowls seems like a distinct possibility. It's not the Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl — this year's semifinals — but it is a significant step above some of the other possibilities like the Citrus or Outback bowls.
The biggest step to getting to one of those games will be sending the seniors out on the proper note today against a Rutgers team that is bowl eligible for the fourth consecutive season.
The Scarlet Knights (6-4, 2-4) will be attempting to improve their standing, as well, and have gone through the gauntlet of facing the Big Ten's other top teams — Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. While they lost all three games, coach Kyle Flood hopes his team gained something from the experience.
"I think as a program we learned a lot in that three-game stretch, and now we have an opportunity to apply it," Flood said. "Every time you play, you're evaluating what you did, what you did well and trying to do the things you didn't do well better, and trying to build on the things that you did. So I think the experience of those three games, there's no doubt, will help us going forward into this week."
The numbers point to a decided Michigan State advantage on both sides of the ball. The Spartans have the No. 1 total offense and the No. 3 total defense while the Scarlet Knights are No. 7 in offense and No. 11 in defense.
And it's the ultimate goal potentially waiting in a marquee bowl game that will push the Spartans today.
"We still have a BCS type-game on the line we can go to, which is huge," left tackle Jack Conklin said. "Michigan State hasn't been to back-to-back BCS-type games in who knows how long and that's something we can't be down on ourselves about. Obviously it sucks we don't have a chance to go to the playoffs, but we're still a top-10 team in the nation, and that's something to be proud of."
The Spartans also hope the fans are on the same page.
After Dantonio and athletic director Mark Hollis were critical of fans leaving early in the Big Ten opener against Nebraska, Spartan Stadium has remained near capacity for the duration of home games against Michigan and Ohio State.
Dantonio hopes the current level of the program and the fact it could face a premier opponent in a bowl game will have the fans out again, even on a day when the forecast calls for cold and rain.
"Our football team, we've won a lot of football games," Dantonio said. "We're a top-10 football team right now coming off a win. Coming off a disappointment the week before, which is tough to deal with, but that's life. We are where we're at. We have a chance to go to a great bowl game, I don't know what you call it, a Power Six bowl game. So we've got a chance to have a great football season.
"But Spartan Nation, we are one of the haves, not the have-nots in terms of fan support. So I know in this day and age you can sit home and watch it on TV, but we are one of the haves, so I expect a lot of people there."
Rutgers at Michigan State
Kickoff: Noon, today, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Line: Michigan State by 22
Records: Rutgers 6-4 (2-4 Big Ten); No. 10 Michigan State 8-2 (5-1)
Series: Rutgers leads 3-2 (Last: Sept. 4, 2004 — (at) Rutgers 19, Michigan State 14)
Did you know? Michigan State's offense has already set school single-season records for points (438) and offensive touchdowns (55)