Matt Charboneau of The News talks about Michigan State beating Maryland on Senior Day to become bowl eligible. The Detroit News
East Lansing — Detroit. New York. Jacksonville.
Michigan State became bowl eligible with its victory over Maryland on Saturday, but where that takes the Spartans is far from certain.
There’s myriad issues that will go into determining which bowl Michigan State ultimately plays in, but one thing is certain the Spartans don’t really care where it is. After suffering through a five-game skid this season that was sprinkled around two bye weeks that made it seem even longer, playing in any bowl game is enough after Michigan State won its final two games to reach a bowl game.
“I'll be excited to play,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “I think we'll have a Power Five opponent and an opportunity to win seven and tilt the ledger this way a little bit. I'll be excited where we'll go.”
It’s been easy for Michigan State to get excited in the past. Outside of the 3-9 season in 2016, the Spartans have typically been going to upper-tier bowl games, even reaching the College Football Playoff in 2015 and playing the year before in a New Year’s Six game at the Cotton Bowl. Before that was the 2013 trip to the Rose Bowl as well as a handful of games in Florida.
Even some of the lower-level games have been in places like San Francisco (Redbox Bowl, 2018), San Diego (Holiday Bowl, 2017) and Phoenix (Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, 2012).
What seems fairly likely this season is that Michigan State won’t be enjoying sun and warm temperatures on its bowl trip. That’s especially true if the Spartans end up at the Quick Lane Bowl, played Dec. 26 at Ford Field in Detroit. Michigan State hasn’t played in the game during its five-year run, nor did it appear in the Little Caesars Bowl or Motor City Bowl, two games that came before the Quick Lane Bowl and were played at the Pontiac Silverdome before shifting to Ford Field.
Often seen by fans of both Michigan and Michigan State as a less-than-desirable destination for a bowl game, Dantonio wasn’t putting any limits on what the Spartans will draw from an extra game and the 15 practices allowed with it.
“Every bowl experience we've had, every single bowl experience we've had has been a tremendous experience for our players, really for our fans, the ones that were there, and for our football program and team,” Dantonio said. “They have all been positive experiences and they've all helped us get better. At the end of the day, we need to continue to work toward getting better.”
Michigan State seniors Brian Lewerke, Kenny Willekes and David Dowell talk about winning on Senior Day to become bowl eligible. The Detroit News
While playing in Detroit in late December carries a high probability, the Pinstripe Bowl played on Dec. 27 in Yankee Stadium in New York is a real possibility, as well.
While it’s not a destination that brings warm temperatures, the draw of the Big Apple is never bad, especially for alumni in the area. A more distant possibility is the Gator Bowl on Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, with a return to the Redbox Bowl in San Francisco on Dec. 30 an even longer shot. Moving up any further in the pecking order would be almost impossible for the Spartans.
How it all shakes out will be debated this week with the official announcements coming on Dec. 8. The College Football Playoff rankings will likely affect bowl positioning for Big Ten teams, as well as Saturday’s conference championship game between Ohio State and Wisconsin. It will all have a bearing on how the Big Ten teams line up.
Then, it’s up to the games as each follows different criteria to determine their matchup. Most projections have Michigan State in Detroit or New York, but nothing is certain.
Wherever it is, the Spartans were focused on getting wins over Rutgers and Maryland in the final two games to get to a bowl game. The current senior class already missed out in 2016 and didn’t want to see that happen again.
“You could see how the team came together, put extra work in,” fifth-year senior defensive end Kenny Willekes said. “Towards the end of the season, sometimes people dwindle off or people get lazy but you could really see people putting in the extra work in, putting the emphasis on to get that fifth and sixth win and now head to a bowl game.”
It wasn’t just a goal for the guys on their way out.
Michigan State played 15 true freshmen this season, and it was almost as critical for them.
“It actually feels good to see everyone happy, because I didn't want to come to college and not get a bowl game in my first year,” freshman wide receiver Julian Barnett said. “It feels good to help out the team and everyone that is around me.”
Outside of conditioning, Michigan State likely will have a decent chunk of time off the next couple weeks before getting into bowl practice. From there, the question starts to creep up about players with an NFL future potentially sitting out the game.
Last season, cornerback Justin Layne made that choice and players like Willekes and defensive tackle Raequan Williams could face a similar choice. Willekes played last year and suffered a broken leg in the Redbox Bowl, an injury that ultimately caused him to return for his final season.
He didn’t give any hint after Saturday’s win over Maryland, but Williams was clear.
“I’m definitely not sitting out of any game, anything,” Williams said. “Even an All-Star game, I’m not sitting out. I want to play.”
He’ll get that chance. Now the Spartans just have to wait and see where it is.