Cotton Bowl aftermath: Michigan State was so close, yet ultimately so far away

Michigan State this season was described with all the adjectives football types like to use for teams deemed “tough.”

Hard-nosed. Physical. Full of grinders. High compete level.

Except this team hadn’t played anyone like Alabama, and the Crimson Tide whipped the Spartans every which way for 60 minutes. The final score was 38-0, but it probably could have been more. The Spartans were taken to school in a way that hasn’t happened in the Mark Dantonio era… except for the last time the Spartans played Bama in the 2011 Capital One Bowl.

Michigan State was held to just 29 yards rushing by Alabama. This Spartan team was no rushing juggernaut, but MSU did average 160.7 yards a game on the ground. In that 2011 Capital One Bowl, which was the only other time the two programs met, the Tide held Sparty to a laughable minus-48 yards on the ground. It was a mauling.

The beating shows how far Michigan State still has to go to get over the hump on a national level. Dantonio has done wonders in East Lansing. If he stays there, he will pass Duffy Daugherty soon enough as the school’s winningest coach. His teams have been consistently great to excellent. Every season his teams have made bowl games, and this year’s team will almost certainly finish in the top 10. It would be Michigan State’s third consecutive top-10 finish.

Despite that level of success, Dantonio’s Spartan teams have been oh so close to breaking through to the top of the mountain, but are left staring at the summit from afar. In 2013 MSU finished third in the polls. Last year Sparty finished in the top 5, but its only two losses were to the two teams that played for a national title. This year the Spartans made the playoffs, but were blown out by the team that has set the bar in college football for almost a decade.

The Spartans are left looking towards the future, having to break in a new quarterback and trying to keep the momentum of the last few years going. Dantonio is still the prince of East Lansing. He sits 23 wins away from the school record, which could conceivably be reached within the next two years, and has all the tools in place to make more runs at the title.

Yet, what happened on New Year’s Eve reminds him and his program just how hard it is to get to the top.

Michigan State finally played for the highest stakes in a bowl game, so in that sense, the program has never been better. The lesson for Dantonio and his players: Alabama showed the Spartans that while reaching a newfound height might be exhilarating and satisfying on one level, a few other climbers can still look down on you if they happen to be superior. Being better than ever is great, but if it’s not enough to be No. 1, there’s still work to be done.

Michigan State realized on Thursday where the biggest mountain resides in college football… and just how far it still has to travel in order to reach the supreme summit. Michigan State finally arrived at the playoff semifinals, but it must redouble its efforts in order to attain the place where no one — not Alabama, not Clemson — enjoys a better view.

Mike Abelson

About Mike Abelson

I've been covering sports at all levels throughout New England since 2007. A lover of professional wrestling, college football, and pretty much every other game that keeps score. Tweet me @ABELS0N.