The 2013 season will always be remembered as one of the most pmagical years in Michigan State Spartans history. MSU finished with a 13-1 record and a Rose Bowl victory. But it’s not hard to imagine things being very different if one specific thing went a little different.
The lone blemish on the Spartans record came in a 17-13 loss on the road to Notre Dame in Week 4 of the season. A loss that many believe only happened because of a controversial pass interference call.
When the game started, Michigan State was a relatively-soft 3-0 with victories over Western Michigan, South Florida and Youngstown State all in East Lansing. Notre Dame was ranked No. 22, but already had a loss on their record, falling to Michigan two weeks earlier. Despite the loss, ND was the favorite over the young Spartans.
Despite what would come by the end of the year, no one expected 2013 to be special for MSU. The previous year Michigan State stumbled to a 7-6 record and a Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win. In that game, Mark Dantonio turned to redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Cook to lead the team to a come-from-behind win. Despite how 2012 ended, Cook wasn’t handed the team in 2013. While he was taking the majority of reps, senior Andrew Maxwell was still getting opportunities.
Neither team got off to a fast start, scoring didn’t open up until nearly the end of the first quarter when Notre Dame took a 3-0 lead on a 41-yard field goal. The Spartans answered in the second quarter with what would be their only lead of the game, going up 7-0 on a pass from Cook to Macgarrett King. The Fighting Irish would regain the lead in the final minute before halftime with a touchdown of their own.
It was the second half where things got messy. The Spartans were called for four pass interference calls. While the first two were questionable, the third was undoubtedly illegal but it negated a would-be MSU interception. But it was the fourth one that left Spartans fans truly stunned.
Cornerback Trae Waynes was step-for-step with wide receiver Corey Robinson on a third-and-10 play deep in MSU territory. The under-thrown ball was closer to being intercepted than completed as the two players hand-checked to get into position.
Then the flag came out.
What was a third down turned into a first and goal. Two plays later the Fighting Irish scored what would be the game-winning touchdown. It was the second time a questionable PI call lead directly to a touchdown for Notre Dame that game.
Had the flag not been thrown, ND still would have had a very makable field goal. It’s impossible to know exactly how the rest of the game would have played out, but the Spartans responded to that drive with a field goal of their own. While college overtime is always a crap shoot, Michigan State was the more talented team that year and would have had a great chance at winning the game.
According to SB Nation’s Reacts voters, it’s clear what fans think would have happened in the final year of the BCS, with 92 percent voting the Spartans would have won the game and nearly two-thirds of the total vote thinking MSU would have reached the national championship.
Following the Notre Dame game, the Spartans found their groove. Cook took over for good and Michigan State won every game left on their regular season schedule by double-digits, including a 29-6 win over Michigan, eventually winning the Big Ten Championship 34-24 over Ohio State.
It’s no guarantee that Michigan State would have reached the BCS National Championship game had they beaten Notre Dame. They finished they went into bowl season ranked No. 4 in the country behind undefeated Florida State, who had just won the ACC title, Auburn and Alabama. Auburn, who would go on to play FSU in the championship game, had just beaten Alabama in the SEC championship, giving the Crimson Tide their first loss.
There is still a chance that one-loss Auburn, who fell on the road to LSU early in the year, could have still reached the championship. An SEC schedule and win over Alabama would be pretty enticing for the BCS. But an undefeated Big Ten champ would have the better chance to take on the Seminoles.
If that were the case, Michigan State would have matched up nicely with Florida State. Led by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, Florida State was a great team. But they hadn’t played a defense like Michigan State’s yet that season, and packed on big stats against a softer schedule.
Against Auburn, their defense allowed 31 points and nearly blew the game. Had Michigan State played in that game, it’s not a stretch to think they would have won their first national championship since 1966. Count Dantonio as one of the many who think that outcome would have happened.
“I think we would have been national champions, to be honest,” Dantonio said at 2014 Big Ten Media Days.
Of course, in a perfect mix of unfortunate events for Michigan State, even if they had lost to Notre Dame, or not jumped Auburn in the final polls, had the College Football Playoff started just one year earlier the Spartans would have undoubtedly been one of the four teams, giving Dantonio a chance to prove his statement right.
A whopping 43 percent of fans think MSU would have won the national championship had they reached the playoff.
From a big picture standpoint, things likely wouldn’t have drastically changed for Michigan State, other than being able to claim a national championship. That season still marked the high point of Dantonio’s time at MSU and kept then as title contenders for the next three years.
But there is nothing that would feel better than being able to wear a 2013 National Champs shirt for the next quarter century.