East Lansing — Since Michigan State found out it was playing Baylor in the Cotton Bowl, there has been plenty of talk about the opportunity that exists for the Spartans.
Most, the Spartans included, believed they were headed to the Orange Bowl before some interesting shuffling in the final College Football Playoff rankings. While that would have been a fine destination, a meeting with a three-loss Georgia Tech team likely wouldn't have been as appealing.
Now Michigan State gets to take on No. 5 Baylor, a team many believed deserved a spot in the playoff.
"Very excited about the challenge against Baylor," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "I think it will be a tremendous challenge. You have the No. 5-ranked team in the country playing the No. 8."
A win over a program the stature of Baylor would be big considering Michigan State came up short in its two biggest games this season against Oregon and Ohio State, two teams that are in the playoff.
But the Bears understand the opportunity they are being presented. While they are certainly disappointed to not be in the playoff, they think facing a Michigan State team that has been in the top 10 for most of the season speaks for itself.
"We're playing one of the greatest teams in America, Michigan State," Baylor coach Art Briles said. "There have been four football programs that have played in back-to-back BCS games; you're talking to one of them and Michigan State is one of them, Florida State and Alabama. So, you choose your company, and that's pretty good company in my book."
Michigan State is coming off a victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl while Baylor lost to Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Spartans have also won 10 or more games in four of the last five seasons and have won three straight bowl games, beating Stanford, TCU and Georgia.
And while it's not the playoffs, the Baylor players understand the level they will be playing at.
"The Cotton Bowl is a great bowl and Michigan State is a great team," Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty said. "I think everything worked out for us the way it's supposed to. Everything happens for a reason. We're supposed to be where we're supposed to be and we're facing a great team and a very well-coached team. It is a great challenge for us and a great way to put Baylor on the map on a national scale."
To do that, Petty and the Bears will have to solve the seventh-ranked defense in the nation. But Petty's group is no slouch. In fact, they're scoring 48.8 points a game, the best in the nation.
"They're very sound," Petty said of the Michigan State defense. "What we got to do offensively is establish a run. They pride themselves on stopping the run, so we got to establish a run and take chances when we get them. They are going to make you earn every inch you get. So those small successes, those first downs, you know plays of 10 yards or more are big. You got to take them any way you can get them. So for us it's just small successes."
And just like Michigan State, Baylor believes if this matchup ends in a victory, it will be evidence to present to the rest of college football that it is among the nation's elite.
"I think there's a statement to be made just for us nationwide," Baylor safety Orion Steward said. "Just to say, 'We are Baylor,' and who we are, to show them that we really have one of the best programs in the country."
Baylor vs. Michigan State
Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. Jan. 1, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Records: No. 5 Baylor 11-1, No. 8 Michigan State 10-2
Line: Baylor by 3
Series: Michigan State leads 1-0 (Michigan State 28-10, Sept. 28, 1968)
Tickets: Available at msuspartans.com or by calling (800) GO-STATE or (517) 355-1610.