East Lansing — For Michigan State, the Rose Bowl two years ago was everything.
Or at least it felt like that at the time.
When Michigan State knocked off Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game and players celebrated with roses clamped in their teeth, coach Mark Dantonio was asked what it all meant.
“Completion,” Dantonio said.
He might not have realized at the time that moment was, in fact, not completion. It was just another step in building a team that could compete for a national championship. It was exactly what Dantonio believed when he took the job in November 2006.
“As crazy as it sounds, I stood there and pointed at the ring that I had on my finger the day I was announced that I believed it could happen here because it had happened here in the past,” Dantonio said Wednesday. “That was a little bit of a reach forward, but I think you have to do that. I think you have to be bold and you have to dream big.”
Michigan State head football coach Mark Dantonio speaks about the skilled players of his Cotton Bowl opponent: "Everywhere you look, you're impressed."
Michigan State kept dreaming in 2010, winning its first Big Ten championship in 20 years, only to be humbled at the hands of Alabama in the Capital One Bowl. It continued to dream big two years ago on that night in Indianapolis before going to the Rose Bowl and beating Stanford. And it was there again last year when Michigan State rallied to beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl and finish in the top five a second straight year.
That dream continues today, though the idea it could end in a national championship is so close that the Spartans can almost reach out and touch it.
Michigan State finds itself two victories away from a national title, something that hasn’t been part of reality with this program since the 1960s. And it starts with the Cotton Bowl matchup on New Year’s Eve against that same Alabama team that whipped Michigan State in Orlando, Fla., almost five years ago.
This, however, isn’t the same as winning a conference championship or finally getting that victory in a bowl, as Michigan State did by beating Georgia in the Outback Bowl following the 2011 season.
This is bigger. But it wouldn’t be possible without everything that came before it, including all the tough times. It includes that loss to Alabama and the crushing defeat to Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten title game. The disappointing 7-6 mark of 2012 was part of it, too. And this season’s loss at Nebraska.
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook speaks about the defense he'll be facing in the Cotton Bowl and the Spartans' hard-work mentality.
“We had a slip-up at the beginning of the year, lost to Notre Dame,” senior linebacker Darien Harris said of last season. “That shaped us as a team and you think back to what Connor (Cook) was able to do after that game and the defense and how we were able to come together. We had the same situation with Nebraska.
“That was a blueprint year for this year. We learned how to be a team and really learned how to lead from older guys on that team and learn what it took to play with the best of the best.”
It’s fitting that to become the best — to come full circle as Dantonio talks about — Michigan State will have to beat the team that signifies greatness in college football. Alabama claims 15 national championships, three since 2009.
R.J. Shelton, Jack Conklin, Jack Allen and Trevon Pendleton talk about measuring up to SEC champ Alabama in the upcoming Cotton Bowl.
“It’s a playoff game so we have a chance to win the national championship and that’s not something you could say around here for so many years,” junior linebacker Riley Bullough said. “We wouldn’t want it to be any different. I feel like we’re playing a great team in a huge spotlight. As a college football player, you couldn’t ask for more.”
The Spartans feel like they’re ready for that spotlight. Dantonio is quick to point out his team is used to it, preparing to play in its second straight Cotton Bowl while adding the Rose Bowl and three Big Ten title games to its resume.
And the players believe this is the right time, as well.
“Going to the Rose Bowl our eyes were like this,” Bullough said, opening them wide as if he were in awe. “It was like, ‘We made it.’ Now it’s more like, ‘OK, we need to win.’ It’s kind of like a business trip. It’s two different approaches.”
Alabama vs. Michigan State
Kickoff: 8 p.m. Dec. 31, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Records: No. 2 Alabama 12-1, No. 3 Michigan State 12-1
Line: Alabama by 10
Series: Alabama leads 1-0