This week across SB Nation, in all sports categories, we’re taking a look at the best teams to never win a championship. This of course means different things to different programs and franchises, and for Michigan State, quite a few teams come to mind, particularly in basketball (2004-2005, 2008-2009, 2009-2010, 2013-2014, 2018-2019 and even the 2019-2020 team who didn’t get a tournament — the list of Tom Izzo teams goes on and on).
But for me, the 2013-2014 Michigan State Spartans football team immediately jumps out at me. Of course, that team won a prestigious Rose Bowl championship — the school’s first since 1988 — so the Spartans did not walk away without a championship per se, however, I wholeheartedly believe that team could have competed with anybody in the country, including Florida State — the eventual national champions led by Jameis Winston.
The Spartans won games with incredible defense and efficient offense. Michigan State averaged 29.4 points per game, while holding opponents to just 13.2 points per game (third in NCAA). The offense averaged 385.5 total yards per game, including 173.8 rushing yards and 211.7 passing yards per contest. The defense only allowed 252.2 yards per game, which ranked second in the NCAA. MSU gave up a mere 86.6 rushing yards per game, which also ranked in the NCAA, 2.85 yards per rushing attempt (third), 165.6 passing yards per game (third) and 5.18 yards per passing attempt (second). These players were going to punch you in the mouth, because they could.
MSU finished the 2013 regular season with an 11-1 record before going to Indianapolis and taking down a 12-0 Ohio State team in the Big Ten Championship game. After punching their tickets to Pasadena, the Spartans went on to beat the Stanford Cardinal for their first Rose Bowl title in 26 years (Spartans fans will always remember Kyler Elsworth for stonewalling the Stanford fullback on fourth-and-one with 1:43 to go in the game). MSU finished the miraculous season at 13-1 for the first time in school history.
All of that is absolutely fantastic, and is an unprecedented level of success for Michigan State, but the question of “what if,” still remains. If not for, and I hope I don’t get fined for this, horrible officiating in the Notre Dame game, MSU most certainly would have had a 13-0 record, and likely would have gotten into the national championship game (which was also played at the Rose Bowl that year) over a one-loss Auburn team (but you know, SEC bias, so who knows for sure).
In the Week 4 matchup in South Bend, that Notre Dame ended up winning 17-13, the Fighting Irish were aided by several questionable pass interference calls — two of which extended Notre Dame drives that led to touchdowns. This was a team that later had to vacate wins from that season (and the 2012 season) due to using ineligible players. While the offense struggled, that game will always have an asterisk next to it for Michigan State fans because that game was the difference between a Rose Bowl and a national title appearance.
To this day, that team is forever proud of the Rose Bowl win, as are MSU fans. However, even the players from that incredible 2013 squad agree — and although they’re certainly not dwelling on it — this was a national championship-caliber team.
One member of that team was former linebacker and current director of player engagement, Darien Harris. He had this to say on the matter:
“After that (Notre Dame) game, we felt like we could do something special and still make a run, honestly,” Harris told me via direct message. “We knew we deserved that game and it lit another fire under us.
“I mean everything ended up being hindsight because that year the focus was on going to and winning the Rose Bowl marked by Coach Dantonio’s speech to us during the previous year’s end of season banquet when he said ‘you will be the ones,’ and also marked by every seniors’ speech where they spoke up about the Rose Bowl. When you look at the fact that that was the year before the College Football Playoff started and you look at how we lost the Notre Dame game, the strength of our defense, the emergence of our offense, I and my teammates absolutely believe still to this day we would have and should have been national champions that season.”
In any sport, which is your choice for best MSU team to never win a championship? Let us know in the comments section.