In 2010, the Michigan State Spartans broke free from the perils of middling in the Big Ten and found themselves tied for a league championship. They had a high-powered offense led by an intelligent, strong-armed junior QB in Kirk Cousins. They had a ferocious defense led by All-American linebacker Greg Jones. The Spartans went 11-1 in the regular season, losing only one game at Iowa.
Unfortunately for the Spartans, the Big Ten was a year away from expansion and no league title game existed. The Spartans were forced to wait for a tie-breaker scenario to determine which of the three teams tied at the top would represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl.
As we all remember, Wisconsin was that team. With another BCS berth up for grabs, the Sugar Bowl quickly nabbed Ohio State. As a result, the 11-win Spartans were rewarded with the Capital One Bowl. The play on the field represented the enthusiasm for which the team and its fans held for that game: Michigan State was destroyed by Alabama 49-7. While the 2010 season should be considered a gigantic success, it certainly didn’t feel that way when the curtains closed.
Fast forward to the beginning of this season; although rebuilt at linebacker and on the offensive line, the Spartans returned the bulk of their talent, especially at skill positions. While Wisconsin added duel threat QB Russell Wilson from North Carolina State, you could argue that the Big Ten looked ripe for the taking. Ohio State was certainly going to be down. No one could expect too much from Michigan in Brady Hoke’s first year as coach. Iowa lost Ricky Stanzi. No one knew how Nebraska would adapt to the Big Ten style of play in their first season in the conference.
For the second consecutive season, the Spartans did not disappoint. They finished 2011 with an identical 7-1 league record as 2010. Their only conference loss was a road blowout at Nebraska, also eerily similar to the season prior.
But thanks to the inappropriately named “Legends” and “Leaders” divisions, the Spartans had no tie-breakers to worry about. They had the chance to play themselves into the Rose Bowl with a win in the Big Ten Championship Game.
From there, you know the story. While Wisconsin certainly could have been viewed as the better team going into the game, anyone who watched the Spartans play this season could tell you that Michigan State was very capable of beating the Badgers a second time.
And they certainly were. The Spartans held the lead the vast majority of the game. They had the Badgers stopped late before giving up a huge play on a miracle pass by Wilson on a fourth down. Then came what may very well be the biggest play in the past 20 years of Michigan State football: the Keshawn Martin punt return that never was, thanks to a debatable running into the kicker penalty. Game over. Spartans come up short again.
While the circumstances in 2011 were certainly different than those in 2010, the result is the same. The Spartans find themselves playing in a second-tier bowl (this time it’s the Outback Bowl) against another high-powered SEC team (this time it’s Georgia).
I have no idea if the Spartans will come out as flat this year as they did last year against Alabama (my guess would be no). But the reality is it’s largely irrelevant. The Outback Bowl is largely irrelevant for the Spartans. They wanted to be playing January 2; they were just expecting it to be a few hours later and for the game to be played in Southern California, not Central Florida.
So Spartan fans and followers, I ask you. If the 2010 season was considered an overall success for the Michigan State program, how will you remember 2011? Was it a triumph; a show of consistency from a historically inconsistent program? Or a disappointment from a team who ultimately came up short of an expected trip to Pasadena?
Let the debate begin, but be mindful of this as well. With the improvement of Michigan and the addition of Urban Meyer to the league, the window for BCS success for Michigan State may already be closing.