This post is sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 2011.
If you read yesterday's column, you'll know that I didn't become a MSU fan until 2002, so the time frame for my favorite Michigan State football team will be a bit limited. Hey, at least there's some bowl teams in the past decade! I'm sure that some of your favorites will be different than mine, feel free to post them in the comments.
2nd Runner-Up - The 2003 Team
The 2002 version of Michigan State football was, in a noun, nuclear waste. Bobby Williams lost control of the team and got the axe, Jeff Smoker left the team in mid-season due to drug problems, and rock bottom was hit. Enter John L. Smith who coached the Spartans to their only bowl game under his four year tenure.
The maddening losses that would highlight the JLS era were present from the beginning as the Spartans lost to Louisiana Tech AT HOME NO LESS. After that loss MSU won five in a row, highlighted by a 20-10 victory over Iowa. The late season swoon was there as well, as State only won once after losing to Michigan in the beginning of November, but I thought that was a one-time phenomenon. Ah, to be young and stupid once again.
My favorite part of the season? Watching Jeff Smoker come back from rehab and succeed. He threw for 3,395 yards (still an MSU record for passing yards in a season), completing 61.9% of his passes for 21 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Not the best season for his QB rating, but still a darn fine one by most standards.
1st Runner-Up - The 2008 Team
This team overachieved, and found interesting ways to overachieve. A Bret Bielema meltdown enabled the Wisconsin victory, and a 4th down stop of Shonn Greene by Adam Decker secured the Iowa win (but not before the offense nearly fumbled the ball away trying to run out the clock, sweet Moses's roses).
The reasons I like this team are numerous: they were one of the first Michigan State football teams in recent memory to win all the games they should, they beat Michigan convincingly in Ann Arbor, avoiding another November collapse, and Javon Ringer carrying the ball about 30 times a game while somehow living to get drafted,
They're not my favorite though. That team hit the field the year before.
My Favorite Spartan Football Team - The 2007 Version
Mark Dantonio won his first four games as Spartan head coach, but I remained skeptical. His early season success reminded me of John L. Smith's quick starts, and the 1-5 slide that followed cemented that comparison. Michigan State was 5-5 headed into their final two games at Purdue, and due to the strength of the Big Ten that season, needed to win both to be assured of a bowl game bid.
The Purdue game was a shootout, but the Spartans left victorious. The prognosis for the Penn State game looked dire midway through the 3rd quarter as MSU was down 24-7. Brian Hoyer took over from there, completing two touchdown passes to Devin Thomas and a third to Jeff McPherson in the second half. A one yard Jehuu Caulcrick with a little over four minutes left gave MSU the lead for the first time since the 1st quarter, 35-31. The defense just had to stop the Nittany Lions from entering the end zone, and Michigan State would be playing a bowl game for the first time since 2003.
I had lived 24 years to that point; not long, but long enough to know that your prayers can be answered in mysterious ways. It could be a chance encounter, it could be through a weather event, but in this case, it could be through a quarterback. Anthony Morelli led Penn State to the Spartan 29, and then threw four straight passes - all for incompletions. Michigan State held on for the win, and made it to the Chammps Sports Bowl that year.
Why is the 2007 team my favorite? Because they were the first (and hopefully not the last) Michigan State football team to avoid a November downfall, like so many teams before them. They handled adversity. Most of all, they went to a bowl game, which is a weak goal for many teams out there, but for a team that had been on the ugly side of .500 for most of the decade, making a bowl game signaled a new start. One where the "same old Spartans" stereotypes isn't a description, but rather a reminder of the hard times the team and fans had to go through to get to a better today.