EAST LANSING, Mich. -- For the second consecutive season, Michigan State enters the postseason with a bit of a gripe.
In 2010, the Spartans finished in a tie for the Big Ten title -- and of the three co-champions, only Michigan State missed out on a BCS bowl. This season, the Spartans lost to Wisconsin in a thrilling conference title game and fell so far in the BCS standings they weren't even eligible for the biggest postseason games.
Instead, 12th-ranked Michigan State is headed to the Outback Bowl. If the Spartans want to earn some acclaim -- and maybe receive the benefit of the doubt more often in the future -- the best way to start is by beating 18th-ranked Georgia on Jan. 2 in Tampa, Fla.
"You want to be a program that is well respected around the country, you have to beat the teams that already are, and Georgia's certainly one of those teams," quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "We feel like a win in this game will go a long ways."
For all the strides they've made under coach Mark Dantonio, the Spartans haven't had any postseason success. Dantonio is the first coach in Michigan State history to reach a bowl each of his first five seasons at the helm, but the Spartans are 0-4 so far in those games. Last season, Michigan State went into the Capital One Bowl with an 11-1 record and lost 49-7 to Alabama in perhaps the most one-sided bowl of the season.
This season it's another Southeastern Conference team, Georgia, standing in the way.
Dantonio's last bowl victory was in 2004 as Cincinnati's coach. Michigan State's last postseason win was in the 2001 Silicon Valley Bowl against Fresno State.
"We've done a lot of things that haven't been done in 40 years, 20 years, whatever. The one thing that has escaped us thus far is winning our bowl game," Dantonio said. "That's something that we've got to be able to rectify."
Cousins, a fifth-year senior, led Michigan State (10-3) to the Legends Division title this year. Cousins and his fellow seniors have won a school-record 36 games, going 24-4 at home. They've won four games in a row over rival Michigan, equaling Michigan State's longest winning streak in the series, which was last achieved from 1959-62.
These Spartans won't cap their season at the Rose Bowl. That dream ended when they lost 42-39 in the Big Ten title game. But there's still a chance for Michigan State to finish on a good note and perhaps position itself well for the future.
"It makes the program look better," defensive back Trenton Robinson said. "Everybody thinks the SEC is better than the Big Ten, and you know how it goes, so to go out here and get this win, it would be great for our program."
And if Michigan State doesn't win? These last two seasons -- in which the team has gone 21-5 -- will feel a little emptier. The Spartans have proven they can challenge for the Big Ten title, but they still lack some of the national credibility programs such as Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska have built over the years. Another bowl loss would only exacerbate that problem.
"We've had a number of goals here since we've come here. One goal this last year obviously was to get to the Rose Bowl," Dantonio said. "But the second goal we had was winning our last football game. That remains in focus for all of us. We'll take that to Tampa with us and we'll concentrate on getting that done and being an 11-3 football team. With that we'll end up somewhere maybe in the top 10, which would be a tremendous accomplishment."