For the first time since the 1987 season, Michigan State finished alone with the Big Ten’s best regular-season record.
But after a tough loss in the conference’s inaugural championship game, the 12th-ranked Spartans will have to settle for another trip to Florida rather than a Rose Bowl appearance.
Michigan State seeks its first postseason victory under coach Mark Dantonio when it faces No. 18 Georgia in the Outback Bowl on Monday in Tampa.
The Spartans (10-3) finished the Big Ten season 7-1 and would have made their first trip to Pasadena since beating Southern California 20-17 in the 1988 Rose Bowl had the conference been under its previous alignment.
“Hopefully that’s gone by us by now,” said Dantonio, who has coached the Spartans to their first back-to-back 10-win seasons. “We need to get ready for the next challenge. You have goals, and if you don’t quite make that goal, you reassess things and you refocus yourself on your next goal. Our next goal is to win our last football game.”
For the fourth time in five seasons under Dantonio, the Spartans will play a bowl game in Florida while looking to win their first postseason game since beating Fresno State 44-35 in the 2001 Silicon Valley Classic.
Michigan State has lost five straight bowl games, the last four coming with Dantonio as coach. After tying for the Big Ten title last season but missing out on the BCS behind Wisconsin and Ohio State, the Spartans fell 49-7 to Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.
“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.”
Michigan State will face another SEC opponent this postseason, as Georgia (10-3) also is coming off a loss in its conference title game.
The Bulldogs fell 42-10 to top-ranked LSU in the SEC championship Dec. 3, ending a 10-game winning streak after dropping their first two contests of the season.
Coach Mark Richt stressed the importance of the layoff for the holidays to help the players and coaches rejuvenate.
“I think as excited as the players are to be leaving after practice (Dec. 20), the coaches are even more excited,” Richt said.
The Bulldogs, making their 15th consecutive postseason appearance, allowed 42 unanswered points against LSU, finishing with season lows in points, rushing yards and total yards.
Aaron Murray completed only 16 of 40 passes for 163 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
Georgia’s offense, which finished third in the SEC averaging 413.8 yards, may have a tough time regrouping against a Michigan State defense that finished fifth in the country allowing 272.7 yards per game.
The Spartans are led by first-team All-America defensive lineman Jerel Worthy - Michigan State’s first first-team All-American on the defensive line since the late Bubba Smith in 1966.
“They’ve got a couple of really big guys up front that can push the pocket into the quarterback’s face,” Richt said. “If you run the ball well, then you tend to have less third-and-long situations. If you play-action pass, you might get a linebacker out of position.”
Georgia’s defense, though, was even better.
The Bulldogs finished third in the FBS allowing 268.5 yards per game, led by consensus first-team All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones and first-team safety Baccari Rambo.
They’ll look to slow a Spartans offense that has averaged 38.6 points and 433.2 yards over the last five games.
Cousins went 22 for 30 for 281 yards and a season high-tying three touchdown passes - all going to Cunningham as part of his five-catch, 115-yard performance - in the Big Ten title game.
Cunningham caught six passes for 52 yards as a freshman in the 2009 Capital One Bowl, when Georgia beat Michigan State 24-12.
The Bulldogs also beat the Spartans 34-27 in the 1989 Gator Bowl.
“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,” Spartans defensive back Trenton Robinson said.