Quietly, and maybe not so quietly, Michigan State’s deep football goal in 2017 was to make sure the Spartans would head somewhere pleasing during the holidays.
This was not a time to be greedy. After sitting home a year ago, listening idly to a few too many Christmas carols, being asked by a few too many relatives what had happened to MSU’s football team during preceding weeks, the Spartans this autumn were bowl-starved and hoping, at the very least, to win six games and qualify for any brand of postseason trip.
Then they played a few notches better.
After they waxed Rutgers, 40-7, Saturday in New Jersey, coach Mark Dantonio’s team had put some flourish on a 9-3 autumn turnaround that looks as if it could deliver MSU to an old bowl address, Tampa, Florida, and to the Outback Bowl, where it appears the Spartans will play LSU.
The lineup could yet be flipped ahead of next week’s formal notifications and determination of the playoff Final Four. But with Michigan looking like a reasonable bet for the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, and Northwestern a strong possibility for the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, the Spartans and LSU are popular picks to play in Tampa.
Mark Dantonio’s team will be happy with their bowl-orders however they play out. But the Spartans coach said Saturday night he was certain his team would be playing on New Year’s Day. And percentages suggest it will be the Outback, where the Spartans last played in 2012 and where they all but won an Academy Award for their theatrics in a 33-30, triple-overtime triumph over Georgia.
LSU has been grinding through the Southeastern Conference schedule while beating a string of heavyweights, including Auburn, which on Saturday tossed aside Alabama to win the Iron Bowl and brand itself as the new No. 1 team in college football.
The Tigers have otherwise beaten, in order: Brigham Young, Chattanooga, Syracuse, Florida, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas A&M. They lost early to Troy, a game that suggested coach Ed Orgeron might be headed the way of Les Miles in losing his finicky fans’ affections.
They also lost to Mississippi State and again to Alabama. But they’ve otherwise punished most of the cast and figure to bring a big edge in personnel and speed — if they and the Spartans, in fact, are locked into a noon, Jan. 1 bowl at Raymond James Stadium.
The Spartans will wait on the final bowl alignments and enjoy, for at least a few days, a breather following one of the most intense, impassioned comeback seasons in MSU’s football archives.
“We’re going to give them some time off,” Dantonio said Saturday night after the Spartans had bashed Rutgers with a clock-swallowing, ball-control game. “We’ll do something on Thursday to keep them in shape. But we’ll give them the weekend off.”
Practices will resume on Dec. 7, which is happy news for Dantonio and his staff. December practices can make a potent difference in how an ensuing season flows, something the Spartans missed, along with their sunshine excursion, after last year’s catastrophe.
Dantonio also will give his assistants an honest-to-goodness day off. They need a break at least as badly as MSU’s players, Dantonio suggested, especially when Michigan State’s bye week came in mid-September and triggered a 10-week football onslaught.
The Spartans understand that, whether it’s LSU or another mauler with which they’ll be paired, they’ll be taking on a team that could well have more structural steel in its roster than MSU features with a 2017 team so very young.
But they’ll take it. With glee. Dantonio mentioned Saturday the advantages and spotlight stature a prime-time bowl game provides. It helps the brand, it helps promote a team and, this season, a comeback year that has delivered a post-season prize to the Spartans.