Before the Capital One Bowl, I felt like I understood what MSU had accomplished. I understood the significance of winning the first eight games of the season as a precursor to potentially a very special season. I understood eleven wins as unprecedented in the MSU program. I understood how all of this was the physical manifestation of Mark Dantonio's grand design to resurrect the Michigan State football program from a perennial disappointment to an annual contender. I understood what it meant to finally, for once, shed the "Same Old Spartans" label that has haunted this football program.
And then, in the course of just sixty minutes, I was left wondering if I really understood anything about this program at all.
While watching with dismay from my living room on Saturday, I couldn't help but think that the game against Alabama was the worst game I had ever seen from the Spartans since I began my days as a student in the fall of 2001.
Comparatively, two games came to mind: the 49-3 loss to Michigan in 2002, and a 38-7 loss to Ohio State in 2006. But those losses were different. That program was different. Those were losses in regular season games, for a program that was still in tatters after the departure of, who else, Nick Saban. There was so much less on the line in those games compared to our game against Bama.
Saturday's game was supposed to be a celebration of a great season, and ended as a referendum on the state of the MSU football program - and the results initially appear to be more disheartening than any of us expected.
The results seem to say that this team is not ready to compete with the big boys. This team is not immune to blowout losses against teams that are physically far superior to our guys. This team is still prone to "everything going wrong" - whether you want to chalk that up to luck, preparation, or a combination of the two.
We knew that MSU wasn't among the elite football programs in the country, but we all felt that we were closer than this, right? I mean, was I completely delusional to believe that 11-1 actually meant something? That it was an indicator of success against an objective measurement? That it was a solid piece of the foundation of the program we were trying to build?
The answer is that many of us wanted to believe what an 11-1 record supposedly tells us - that we have a very talented team that should probably be able to compete on the national stage with the best that college football has to offer. The problem was that the Spartans were more likely an 8-4 team that overachieved, took advantage of a favorable schedule (facing Wisconsin before they were playing their best football and not going against Ohio State), and persevered through deficits that prior MSU teams would have rolled over on (Purdue and Northwestern).
Meanwhile, the Tide were a highly talented and exceptionally physical football team that had a similar problem as the Spartans - an inability to put together a full 60 minute effort (case in point, the Cammy Cam Comeback). Despite being the preseason #1, Alabama faced injuries and an inability to come together on their way to three losses - all against teams that were coming off a bye week.
In the end, the difference was an Alabama team that finally found that 60-minute effort on Saturday, and an overachieving MSU team that was as physically overmatched as I have ever seen. Now I know what being a fan of a MAC school must feel like.
What Comes Next
The most difficult thing about this loss is trying to come to terms with what it means for this program. Rexrode opines on the "residual damage":
. . . The 2011 recruiting class looks like another good one, but this is the type of loss that can hurt in that arena.
This team won’t get a ton of preseason respect now. And if U-M hires Jim Harbaugh … well, fairly or not, a lot of people are going to say the Spartans are headed right back to this position in the state: 2
It looks like the latter of Rexrode's prediction won't be coming true. But the recruiting damage has the potential to be real and immediate. Getting embarrassed against an SEC team certainly doesn't help in convincing the best and brightest to come to your school and play football. And for any of the respect MSU earned throughout the season, it's tempered now not only by Alabama's blowout against the Spartans, but also by the Big Ten's bowl season meltdown.
Looking Towards the Positive
If there's a silver lining coming out of Saturday, it's this: MSU still took a step forward in the development of it's football program in 2010, despite the loss against Alabama.
There's a couple of steps that go into the rebuilding of a football program. These aren't written in stone, but I think they are pretty typical of what you took to in building a program:
- Finish the season with a winning record
- Start going to a bowl game on a regular basis
- Winning your bowl games
- Contending for a conference championship (or, making a conference championship game)
- Making a BCS bowl
- Winning a conference championship
- Winning a BCS bowl
- Contending for / making / winning a National Championship Game
Mark Dantonio saw a winning season in his first year at the helm, and has finished with a winning record in three out of his four seasons. We've been to four bowl games under his watch, and went from contending for a conference championship in 2008 to winning a share of the Big Ten title in 2010.
Sure, there's still progress yet to be made, specifically in the way of winning our bowl games and making a BCS bowl. Those two seem like the next big steps for this program, along with winning another Big Ten title.
But even when you consider a favorable schedule and a couple of key plays going our way this past season, the fact of the matter is that those are part of what it means to contend for a title - to put yourself in position to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. Mark Dantonio got MSU to a spot where it could take advantage of these opportunities. Does it amount to putting the team in a position to overachieve? Yes. Which means that the next step is to continue to bring in the type of players where MSU can win a Big Ten title simply by achieving.
MSU returns a starting quarterback, a full stable of running backs, and a pretty deep receiving corps. Defensively, the linebacking corps takes a hit, but at the very least the defense appears serviceable. Standing where I am right now, I don't see any reason why MSU can't contend for the Big Ten title again next season. That's not a guarantee they'll win it, or that they'll make the conference title game in Indianapolis. But at the very least, they should still have the pieces in place to contend for the title.
Is this program as far along as we thought going into the Capital One Bowl? Probably not. But looking past the throttling we took on Saturday, there's still progress that was made. MSU is Big Ten champs in 2010, and that's something that they can't take away from us. This is still a program that appears to be on an upward trajectory, which is more than some other programs can say right now.