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East Lansing — Bennie Fowler was gone after the 2013 season. Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphrey were gone after 2014.

And, so, Michigan State entered the 2015 season with some questions at wide receiver — but those questions, to be frank, were coming from outside of the program.

Inside, no one was worried.

Aaron Burbridge had this.

"This was his opportunity," MSU co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. "I talked with him, I'm sure a lot of us on the offensive staff talked to him right after our (Cotton) Bowl game last year, that, 'OK, he's the guy now that needs to really sort of be the go-to guy, be the guy that was sort of our No. 1 receiver.'

"He's taken advantage of that opportunity, bottom line, and he has not surprised any of us."

Burbridge, the senior from Farmington Hills Harrison, has had a season for the ages at Michigan State. His 80 receptions are tops in program history, his 1,219 yards are fifth and his seven touchdowns are tied for seventh — and that's still with at least one more game to go, and, in the eyes of Burbridge and Co., two more.

Burbridge has had several standout performances this year, topping 100 yards seven times, including in huge wins over Oregon and Michigan.

The Spartans will ask him to do it again, starting New Year's Eve when No. 2 seed Alabama plays No. 3 seed MSU at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, with that winner moving on to the national championship game.

This is the moment Burbridge has been waiting for since he committed to Michigan State going into his senior year of high school — even though there wasn't a College Football Playoff to speak of, at the time.

"The only reason I came here," Burbridge told The News in a one-on-one chat, just before Christmas. "I felt we had the players and the coaching staff to take this program to new heights, and that's what we're doing.

"My heart was here the whole time."

That's interesting, given he had his choice of Big Ten schools, but he always was going to MSU, which was absolutely loaded at wide receiver.

It meant he would have to wait his turn, behind Mumphrey, Lippett and Fowler, who all arrived at MSU a year before Burbridge — and were next in line once star receiver B.J. Cunningham left after an epic 2011 season.

Burbridge still was in the mix, getting 29 receptions as a freshman, 22 as a sophomore and 29 last year as a junior.

Then, on Jan. 2, the day after MSU rallied past Baylor to win the Cotton Bowl, 42-41, everything changed. This was Burbridge's team now, and the timing was just right, at least in his estimation.

"Talent-wise, I could've gotten these numbers (earlier), but football IQ-wise, I wasn't ready. So I just learned from Bennie and Tony and Keith Mumphrey and all those guys. They helped me become the player I am today," said Burbridge, the 6-foot-1, 208-pound dynamo with hands of silk. "I was just very athletic, my natural talent had me making plays, but I didn't know how to read coverages, I didn't know the offense like I do now.

"Those guys just helped me put it all together."

Burbridge has continued to hear from Fowler, Lippett and Mumphrey throughout the season, offering little passages of wisdom.

The communication has really stepped up lately, with MSU two wins from its first national championship since 1966.

"They're probably more excited than we are!" Burbridge said, with a smile. "They wish they could be on this team right now."

Here, now, instead are Burbridge and his team of reinforcements, including R.J. Shelton (41 catches, 484 yards), Macgarrett Kings (38, 492) and tight end Josiah Price (19, 228).

Burbridge, though, has caught more than a third of MSU's 225 receptions this season.

And many of them have come in impressively athletic fashion. When you think he can't get to a ball, he gets to a ball. And quarterback Connor Cook knows this, and knows he can put the ball in one spot and Burbridge will go get it. This was especially evident in the Michigan game, when Burbridge had 132 yards against Michigan stud corner Jourdan Lewis.

The relationship with Cook has been one that's grown and grown over time, and reached its peak this season. You could say they're close enough to finish each other's sentences, if only Burbridge talked as much as Cook.

"There's just the trust factor we have in each other," Burbridge said. "He trusts me to make those catches and I trust him to put the ball where it needs to be."

It's not just about the catch with Burbridge, either. He can do damage after the catch, as was evident, for instance, by the double-spin move against Penn State that quickly became all the rage on YouTube.

Burbridge battled a foot injury in the spring, but that was a distant memory — and no longer a lick of a concern — after he opened the season with three consecutive 100-yard games, including 101 and a touchdown against Oregon, the early-season test.

His best game came Nov. 7 in Lincoln, Nebraska, where Burbridge caught 10 passes for 164 yards and a late touchdown, when it seemed the Spartans were going to post another of their patented, pull-it-out victories.

But Nebraska came back to shock MSU and, from the fans' perspective, put an end to the national-championship hopes. That was never the attitude when the Spartans got back to work, however. The loss simply got them refocused, though Burbridge isn't one of those folks calling it, in hindsight, a "good loss."

"It was very humbling," he said. "After the loss, we had to regroup. We still had our goals ahead of us.

"We weren't worried. We're used to being under pressure, thriving under pressure."

The pressure will never be greater than it is this month, first against Alabama, then, if MSU wins that one, against Clemson or Oklahoma out in Arizona for the national championship on Jan. 8.

MSU is an underdog against Alabama, and likely would be against Clemson or Oklahoma, too.

Par for the course for a team with a head coach, in Mark Dantonio, that gets misidentified so often by media outlets, you'd think he coached pee-wees, not the No. 3-ranked college football team in all the land.

Burbridge, who turned 22 two days before Christmas, doesn't have that issue. Folks, especially in NFL circles, are starting to know exactly who he is, even if it took a few years for his number to finally be called.

"Burbridge is a stud, man, he's a baller," said Price, the junior tight end. "I would say he did about what I expected him to do this year. I've seen it for the past three years. It's just been a matter of him coming around and really developing into that No. 1 guy, which I think we all were able to witness this year.

"He's been a heck of a player this year.

"Pretty much anytime the ball's in the air, you expect Bur to come down with it."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/tonypaul1984

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