It’s late December, the final day in 2018, in fact, and Michigan State is taking on Oregon in a bowl game in California.
It has all the ingredients of a big-time college football game.
At least those were the perfect ingredients if this game was taking place a few years ago when the Ducks and Spartans appeared in back-to-back seasons in the College Football Playoffs with Oregon reaching the national championship game in early 2015.
Instead, this matchup comes in the Redbox Bowl at Levi’s Stadium, a lower-tier game that sees each team trying to climb back to the lofty status it once held a few years back.
In 2014 and 2015, Michigan State and Oregon were not only crashing the playoff party, they were facing each other. In 2014, quarterback and eventual Heisman winner Marcus Mariota rallied Oregon at home to a win over Michigan State followed by the Spartans pulling even in the series the next fall back in East Lansing.
Those were high times for Oregon and Michigan State. After unprecedented success under Chip Kelly that included a trip to the BCS Championship Game in 2010, the Ducks hardly skipped a beat in Mark Helfrich’s first two years at the helm, coming a victory shy of a national title following the 2014 season.
By 2015, though, things started to head in the wrong direction as Oregon went 9-4 followed by a 4-8 mark in 2016 that cost Helfrich his job. Last season, under Willie Taggart, the Ducks went 7-5, which led to Taggart leaving for Florida State and leaving current coach Mario Cristobal in charge this season. He led the Ducks to an 8-4 mark in his first full season.
Michigan State’s track has been similar.
From 2013-15, Michigan State went 36-5, won a pair of Big Ten championships by twice knocking off Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes and reached the national semifinals. But 2016 saw a drop to 3-9 followed by a surge to 10-3 last season before another step back this season to 7-5 in coach Mark Dantonio’s 12th season.
Each path has led the teams to this game, a moment each team is looking at as a way to rekindle the fire that existed in each not long ago and rejoin the nation’s elite.
“Two national brands and we've got a little bit of a history together,” Dantonio said this week. “I think both programs have been in a national spotlight where all eyes have been on them and I think that generates interest from across the country.”
Generating real interest, though, is the key. And the only way that happens is getting out of playing in the Redbox Bowl or the Holiday Bowl and getting back to the New Year’s Six games, ideally the two that make up the playoffs.
Both programs feel like they’re on the right track.
“We’ve been through a lot. It’s been a long journey,” Oregon senior linebacker Jalen Jelks said. “Been through a lot of great teams, a lot of bad teams and stuff like that. I can just tell you from the time I’ve been here with coach Cristobal and everything this program is probably going to be on the rise like I’ve never seen it before. The next couple of years I’m definitely going to come back to some games, watch and see what the Oregon Ducks are going to do.”
A win over a Michigan State team that happens to have the best rushing defense in the nation could be a crucial step in catapulting the Ducks into 2019, a season they’ll have Justin Herbert, one of the top quarterbacks in the nation, back for his senior year.
It likely makes Oregon a solid bet to win the Pac-12, or at least contend.
Whether Michigan State follows a similar path in the Big Ten has less to do with its outstanding defense than it does an offense that was among the worst in the nation this season. Injuries were a significant factor as only one player started all 12 games at the same position — right tackle Jordan Reid.
However, the Spartans will need quarterback Brian Lewerke to play more like his 2017 version than this season’s if they expect to win one of the toughest divisions in college football. Of course, that’s just part of it. They’ll need to play better up front, run the ball, and if the fans have any say, get creative in playcalling.
How much of that changes in this game is tough to predict, but Lewerke sees it as a chance to head into the offseason with some momentum.
“Just finish off the season right way and hopefully carry that same energy into the next season,” Lewerke said. “So, it’s not a beginning or an end I don’t really think, kind of just a continuation.”
If it’s a continuation of what each team has shown in the past few seasons, it likely means more trips to off-the-radar bowl games.
However, if this matchup is one that proves these programs aren’t going down without a fight, it could be one of the first glimpses of revival.
“The sky is the limit for these guys,” Oregon senior safety Ugochukwu Amadi said. “I give it two to three years these guys will win a national championship.”
If that happens, maybe the next Michigan State-Oregon matchup will have all the ingredients for a classic.
For now, it’s two programs still fighting to get back on the national stage.
Michigan State vs. Oregon
Kickoff: 3 Monday, Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
Records: Michigan State 7-5; Oregon 8-4
Line: Oregon by 2.5