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Arlington, Texas — To see where Michigan State is headed, it’s probably a good idea to look back.

As Michigan State prepared to take on Alabama in the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium on Thursday, it’s valuable to note how far the program has come under coach Mark Dantonio.

In his nine seasons, Dantonio never has missed a bowl, won three Big Ten championships, captured four straight bowls and finished in the top five in the country the last two seasons.

The College Football Playoff was checked off the list this season, something that would have seemed like a pipe dream when Dantonio took over in November 2006.

He had some early success, winning seven games his first season and nine in 2008. A step back to six wins in 2009 was followed by a Big Ten title in 2010.

Michigan State, it seemed, had arrived. That is, until it faced Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.

The Crimson Tide dominated, beating the Spartans on the scoreboard, 49-7, and physically, proving Michigan State had made strides, but playing with the big boys was a long way off.

“We were 11-1 as we went down there that particular day and had some turnovers, and it became a rough day as things sort of spun out of control a little bit,” Dantonio said. “But with that being said, I think that’s a part of the process here. That was our first game in a situation like that. As you move forward, you try and win regular-season games, win the Big Ten, win bowl games, and you continually try and take your program to the next challenge, and I think that’s part of growth, and we’re going to find out if we’ve grown up a little bit.”

Growing up

Growing up is what Michigan State has done under Dantonio, and win or lose Thursday, there’s little indication that growth has stalled.

Since that Capital One beatdown, Michigan State hasn’t lost a bowl, beating the likes of Georgia, TCU, Stanford and Baylor. The Spartans also have been to three Big Ten championship games and won two. Michigan State has beaten Ohio State twice, the only conference team to manage that feat against Urban Meyer.

But the proof in how much progress has been made is the 7-1 record against top-10 opponents.

“I try to measure our progress by who we play against and how we come out at the end,” Dantonio said. “Try and define our football team at the end of the season, not at the beginning.

“So we’re going to see how far we’ve grown. But there was no question at that point in time (in 2011) that all of a sudden we got hit with a little bit of an avalanche and our guys played hard, but we needed to be better.”

Sustaining that climb will be the key for Michigan State heading into next season — and beyond. Dantonio has built his program to be sustainable, not a flash in the pan.

“He certainly has the right kind of personal character and integrity to have the kind of leadership that I think is necessary to sustain a program with some kind of consistency and success because of the values and culture that you create,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

Drop-off unlikely

And it helps to have the players.

Michigan State has had its share, finding the diamonds in the rough and developing them into standouts. This year’s team features plenty who followed a familiar path of undervalued in high school to likely NFL draft choice by the end.

Quarterback Connor Cook has won more games than any quarterback in school history. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun is a two-time All-American who was the Big Ten’s best defensive lineman as a sophomore. Junior tackle Jack Conklin was a walk-on who could go in the first round this spring.

It’s the start of a long list that includes center Jack Allen and wide receiver Aaron Burbridge along with safety RJ Williamson and linebacker Darien Harris.

They’re all most likely gone next year, but the notion of there being a big drop-off for Michigan State seems like a stretch.

For the first time, Dantonio has a recruiting class ranked in the top 15 in the country, and the current roster is filled with young players pushing to see the field. The running back position is deep and the center of the defense is a strong as ever, led by Malik McDowell.

There’s no doubt quarterback will be the biggest question mark. The last time the Spartans had to replace a three-year starter, they went 7-6 in 2012 after Kirk Cousins was replaced by Andrew Maxwell. It will be a hotly-contested battle as Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry will be joined by Brian Lewerke, who redshirted this season, and true freshman Messiah deWeaver.

A step back almost seems likely, but it will be brief and it might more accurately be determined by two or three losses — a good year but not a championship year.

But that’s what Dantonio has established at Michigan State — championships are no longer a dream, they’re the realistic goal.

“This was the expectation (before the season),” tight end Josiah Price said. “That is the goal now at Michigan State and it’s an exciting time to be here.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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