With Christmas season upon us, and very little MSU sports action, I've been away from this blog quite a bit since the Big Ten Championship game against Iowa.
But now we're only four days away from the Spartans' College Football Playoff semi-final against the big bad Alabama Crimson Tide.
It's hard not to be reminded of the last time Michigan State played Alabama in football, the shellacking in the 2011 Capital One Bowl. That was one of the most uncompetitive bowl games I've ever seen, and at the time was a clear indication of how far Michigan State had to go to be among the elite programs in the nation.
On New Year's Eve, we will see how far the Spartans have come in the last five years. Obviously, I hope the Spartans beat Alabama, but I don't think it's necessary for MSU to win in order to prove that they belong among the big boys in college football. A hard-fought, close loss should be enough (though clearly a win over Bama would be considerably more satisfying).
I'm going on a limb and declaring that the Spartans are not only more athletically talented than the 2010 team, but they are tougher and more battle-tested. I'd be surprised if they don't battle Alabama all the way to the end, and frankly I wouldn't be shocked if the Spartans won this game. After the wild, crazy, seemingly improbable wins they have had since the 2011 season--and particularly since 2013--I'm finally done doubting this program.
There's been a lot written in these parts lately about Nick Saban: the way he left MSU and peoples' overall impression of the guy. My feelings towards Saban are somewhat ambivalent. Saban took over a Michigan State football program that had become flabby, undisciplined, and lazy (on and off the field) in the last few years of the George Perles regime. Saban cleaned it up, did what he could with scholarship limitations, and finally by his fifth year had enough talent to lead the program to a 9-2 record. Like most everyone in Spartan Nation, I was both angry and despondent when he bailed for LSU when the 1999 season ended. However, as has been pointed out by folks like Jack Ebling, the environment in the MSU administration and athletic department was much different in '99 than it is now. President M. Peter McPherson never did get football, (and neither did his predecessor John DiBiaggio, for that matter).
I won't pretend to know the ins-and-outs of Saban's decision to leave Michigan State. My sense is that it was a combination of factors: McPherson's refusal to give him a raise, Saban growing frustrated with playing second banana to Michigan--and by extension probably believing he'd taken MSU as far as it could go in football. (In fairness to Saban, Michigan under Lloyd Carr was a juggernaut and had won a share of the national championship in 1997, and I'm sure was extremely difficult to compete against in recruiting. When Dantonio took over in 2007, it coincided with the crumbling of the Michigan empire). Saban has been extremely complimentary of Dantonio, acknowledging that his protege has taken MSU further that he ever did.
So now mentor and protege face each other for the second time. We will soon see exactly how far the protege has elevated Michigan State football.