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Michigan State banking on brighter times ahead

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — There will be no trip back to Indianapolis to play in the Big Ten championship game.

That will have to wait another year for Michigan State, which last played in the game in 2015.

And there will be no trip to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl or to any other New Year’s Six bowl game.

However, Michigan State will play in a bowl game, something that was assured a few weeks ago after a victory at Maryland and was solidified by Saturday’s 14-10 victory over Rutgers on Senior Day at Spartan Stadium.

“Anytime you get another game to play football that’s a blessing,” junior wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. said. “Even though I know the season didn’t go as we pictured, it’s still a blessing that I get a chance to play football and the team gets a chance because there’s guys out there and people out there that don’t get to do what they love or there’s something wrong with them where they can’t perform up to their best.

“Like the sad thing about Felton (Davis) and his injury. That’s one thing I look at him and I say I’m very grateful to be able to play another game or be able to still do the thing I love to do, so it’s a blessing.”

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That means 11 bowl games in 12 seasons under Mark Dantonio with 2016 being the only season the Spartans haven’t qualified for a bowl game under their current head coach.

Dantonio has led Michigan State to a 5-5 mark in bowl games, winning four straight at one point with victories in the 2012 Outback Bowl (Georgia), 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (TCU), 2014 Rose Bowl (Stanford) and 2015 Cotton Bowl (Baylor).

Last season, Michigan State beat Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.

Where the Spartans will head this holiday season seems as uncertain as it’s been in recent years. Much of that is because figuring out where the rest of the Big Ten stands is difficult, thanks to Ohio State’s win over Michigan. The Buckeyes are on the fringe of the playoffs, but even if they don’t get in, there’s a chance the Big Ten could have three teams in New Year’s Six games with the Buckeyes and Wolverines likely in and Penn State on the edge. Teams must be in the top 12 in the playoff rankings to reach one of those games and entering the week, Michigan was No. 4, Ohio State No. 10 and Penn State No. 12.

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Any team making a New Year Six game opens things up for the rest of the conference as the top tier games with Big Ten tie-ins include the Citrus Bowl, Outback Bowl and Holiday Bowl. Northwestern, the West Division champ, seems likely to land one of those games barring an upset of Ohio State next week. After that, the games are likely choosing between 8-4 Iowa, 7-5 Michigan State and 7-5 Wisconsin.

The Spartans would be an attractive choice for either of the Florida bowls — Citrus in Orlando and Outback in Tampa — considering the large alumni base and the fact they haven’t played in the state since the 2011 season. They’re also a fresh face, with Wisconsin having played in Florida three times since 2014 and Iowa doing the same, including two trips to the Outback Bowl.

Also, the top-tier bowls could be intrigued by 6-6 Purdue, which has a high-powered offense and could appeal to more viewers.

Of course, getting just two teams in the New Year’s Six games pushes everything down, meaning Michigan State might likely fall into a second-tier bowl with the Taxslayer Gator Bowl or the Pinstripe Bowl being likely landing spots.

The Spartans could also end up in a second-tier game if the top tier simply passes on Michigan State.

Their poor offense likely won’t excite the average fan and Michigan State can’t play in the Holiday Bowl two years in a row.

So, best guess heading into the conference championship games is Michigan State ends up in Florida at either the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 or the Gator Bowl on Dec. 31. The Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 27 in New York would be the next most likely destination.

Wherever the Spartans land, they’ll be happy to do so.

“It was a big thing to put us over the .500 mark and try to get us into the best bowl as possible,” senior Khari Willis said of the win over Rutgers. “So, you know we had goals at the beginning of the season and due to some of our play we weren’t able to accomplish those goals, but we go for next and next for us was seven (wins). We’ve been trying to get seven for three weeks now. So, it was a huge, huge win for us regardless of how pretty or ugly it was. It was seven and that’s what we needed to do.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau