NCF Nation: 2012 outback bowl

Devin Gardner gave Michigan fans little to complain about during his first three and a half games as the team's quarterback.

After Gardner became the top signal-caller Nov. 3 at Minnesota, Michigan averaged 38.3 points and 440.3 yards during its next three games. The Wolverines converted 7 of 12 third downs against Minnesota, 7 of 10 against Northwestern and 9 of 12 against Iowa. The trends continued through the first 30 minutes in Columbus against archrival Ohio State, as Michigan piled up 21 points and 219 yards and converted 3 of 5 third-down attempts.

But then Michigan's offense disappeared, quite literally. After a six-play drive to start the second half, Michigan ran just 10 plays during its next four possessions.

The Big Ten's best third-down offense -- Michigan ranks sixth nationally at 51.3 percent -- went 1-for-3 on third-down attempts in the second half. Michigan ran a season-low 47 plays in the game, 23 fewer than Ohio State in a 26-21 Buckeyes win.

[+] EnlargeVicent Smith
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsOhio State stymied Michigan's third-down offense in the second half of the Buckeyes' Nov. 24 win.
"There were a lot of plays I left on the sheet," offensive coordinator Al Borges told ESPN.com. "We played a poor half of football against Ohio. How about the first half, and the previous three games? Devin Gardner was player of the week in the conference two out of the four times he started. He played pretty well offensively, had pretty good numbers for really three and half [games].

"There's no excuse for what happened in the second half, but we had been very productive. Because of how we finished, a lot of people think we're in worse shape than we are."

Like many teams, Michigan has spent a portion of its early bowl practices getting younger players more reps than usual. But as the Wolverines prepare for their Outback Bowl matchup Jan. 1 against No. 10 South Carolina, they're focusing on reviving what has been a very efficient third-down offense.

"That's a high, high emphasis right now," Borges said. "Because when we keep the chains moving, everybody's generally happy. A lot of guys touch the ball, everybody gets a chance to make a play. If you don't get third downs, you don't get calls out. A lot gets left on your sheet.

"We're a 51 percent third-down conversion team, and that includes short yardage. It's been a strength. It certainly hasn't been a weakness. It was in the second half of [the Ohio State] game."

To get back on course, Michigan likely needs to get more rushing production outside of the quarterback position, which has been a struggle at times this season. Denard Robinson, the team's leading rusher as a quarterback (1,166 yards) who played some running back late in the season, can help there. Borges also wants to get Justice Hayes more involved, as well as Thomas Rawls.

It won't be easy against an "incredibly athletic" South Carolina defense ranked 15th nationally against the run (119 yards per game).

"Our running game, we finished with 187 [rushing yards a game], and that's nothing to sneeze at," Borges said, "but at times, I don't think we were as consistent as we could have been. That hurt us a little bit. We have to improve with our home-position running game, that's the biggest thing, giving the ball to the tailback and not having to run the quarterback all the time."

Although Gardner is clearly the team's future at quarterback and changed the offense a bit when he took the reins, Borges continues to "spoon-feed" players some of the pro-style elements that will be Michigan's hallmarks in the future. A strong performance against Jadeveon Clowney and South Carolina could set up the Wolverines for bigger and better things in 2013.

"You do set the tone," Borges said. "It doesn't have a lot to do with what you do next year because you're playing with a significantly different team, but we need to finish the season on an up-beat. We need to do the things that make you happy in the offseason."
Some bad news for Michigan, which will be without its top cornerback, its award-winning punter and a reserve linebacker for the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 against South Carolina.

The team announced Sunday that senior cornerback J.T. Floyd, senior linebacker Brandin Hawthorne and junior punter Will Hagerup have been suspended for the game for an unspecified violation of team rules. All three players won't travel with the team to Tampa.
"It is an honor to play football for the University of Michigan, and we have high standards and expectations for everyone that represents our program," Wolverines head coach Brady Hoke said in a prepared statement. "These young men used poor judgment in each circumstance, and these suspensions are teaching moments for our team."

Floyd recorded 48 tackles and five pass breakups for the Wolverines this fall, starting all 12 games. Hawthorne had 19 tackles. Hagerup earned the Big Ten's Eddleman-Fields Punter of the Year award after averaging a league-best 45 yards per attempt this fall.

This is the first known disciplinary incident for both Floyd and Hawthorne, whose college careers come to a disappointing end. Hagerup was suspended for the first four games of the 2011 season for violating team rules. It'll be interesting to see how Hoke approaches Hagerup's future as this isn't his first infraction.

Michigan lost starting cornerback Blake Countess to an ACL injury in the season opener and turned to Raymon Taylor to step in. Junior Courtney Avery is expected to step in for Floyd, while sophomore Delonte Hollowell and freshman Terry Richardson are also available.

Floyd's absence will be felt even though Michigan's secondary performed well most of the season. The fifth-year senior from Greenville, S.C., would have faced some familiar faces in the Outback Bowl. Very disappointing all around.

Sophomore Matt Wile will take over the punting duties for Hagerup.

Top SEC bowl performers

January, 3, 2012
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The SEC still has three bowl teams left, but we're going to take a look at some players who have already seen their seasons come to an end.

It was a fun weekend of football and a good weekend for the SEC. The conference went 4-2, with Georgia and Vanderbilt being the only teams to come up short.

With those games came some pretty good performances from players.

Here are some top performers:
  • Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State: He saved one of his best performances for last, as he rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries. His touchdowns went for 60 and 72 yards.
  • Archibald Barnes, LB, Vanderbilt: He was all over the field for the Commodores, leading the Liberty Bowl with 10 total tackles. He also blocked a field goal in the fourth quarter that gave Vandy some life late.
  • Emory Blake, WR, Auburn: Blake made his day in the Georgia Dome look easy as he caught six passes for 108 yards in the win over Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
  • Jon Bostic, LB, Florida: He was one of the most active players on defense this past weekend, recording eight tackles, including four for loss.
  • Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia: In his final game as a Bulldog, Boykin found a way to put points on the board three different ways in the Outback Bowl. First, he forced a safety when he stuffed Michigan State's Keshawn Martin on the Spartans' first offensive play. He then returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown and caught a 13-yard touchdown late. His punt return was the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
  • Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: The true freshman put a stamp on his first season by recording two sacks for a loss of 13 yards. He finished the Capital One Bowl with four total tackles.
  • Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: Cox made sure he went out with a blast in the Music City Bowl, recording seven tackles, with two coming for loss, had a sack and blocked a field goal.
  • Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt: He grabbed eight tackles, including one for loss, and grabbed two interceptions. With his picks, Hayward tied for first in career interceptions at Vanderbilt.
  • Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina: If not for his ejection, Jeffery's numbers would have been much better. Still, he caught just four passes for a game-high 148 yards. He snagged Connor Shaw's Hail Mary touchdown pass at the end of the first half and had a 78-yard reception.
  • Tavarres King, WR, Georgia: King was almost one of the heroes for Georgia, catching six passes for a career-high 205 yards and had an 80-yard touchdown reception, which was also a career long. Before Boykin's punt return, King's play stood as the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
  • Onterio McCalebb, RB, Auburn: Taking over as Auburn's lead back in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, McCalebb had a game-high 109 rushing yards, including a long of 60 yards. He also recorded a 3-yard touchdown run and caught two passes for 53 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown.
  • Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia: He was all over the field for the Bulldogs, recording an Outback Bowl-high 13 tackles, including two for loss, broke up two passes and had a sack.
  • Chris Rainey, RB, Florida: Rainey ended his Florida career with a great showing against Ohio State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. He led Florida with 71 rushing yards, had 31 receiving yards and blocked a punt that was scooped up and run in for a touchdown by linebacker Graham Stewart.
  • Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: Shaw didn't let the big stage bother him, as he passed for 230 yards and two touchdowns, including a nifty Hail Mary to end the first half. He also carried the ball for 42 yards and another touchdown.

Michigan State gave the Big Ten a much-needed bowl win with a thrilling 33-30 triple-overtime win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.

Here's an instant analysis:

How the game was won: Defense was king to start the day, but we saw both offenses catch some fire in the second half. After being outscored 16-0 in the first half, the Spartans outscored Georgia 27-11 in the second. Michigan State survived quarterback Kirk Cousins' third interception of the day to start overtime, then Georgia's Blair Walsh missed a 42-yard field goal attempt. Spartans kicker Dan Conroy won the game in triple overtime with a 28-yard field goal.

Turning point: Walsh's missed field goal attempt on Georgia's first possession in overtime kept Michigan State alive and allowed it to score in the next two overtime periods.

Stat of the game: The teams combined for 68 rushes for 124 yards.

Player of the game: Michigan State wide receiver Brian Linthicum had a spectacular day catching the ball. He hauled in seven catches for 115 yards, and his 50-yard reception in the fourth quarter helped set up a touchdown that gave Michigan State its first lead of the day.

Unsung hero of the game: Fifth-year senior wide receiver/holder Brad Sonntag saved the Spartans on two huge kicks. He snagged a low one on the tying extra point to send the game into overtime and grabbed a high one for the winner.

Best call: With 3:30 left in the fourth quarter, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio challenged a play ruled a catch by Georgia's Marlon Brown. Even with pass interference being called on the play, a completion would have left the game clock at 3:30, but if it was incomplete, the clock would have had 13 seconds added. The play was overturned, 13 seconds were added, and Michigan State eventually scored its tying touchdown with 19 seconds remaining.

Second-guessing: Georgia coach Mark Richt has often been criticized for being too conservative, and it almost cost him, as he ran just two plays after Bacarri Rambo's interception before sending Walsh out for the 42-yard field goal attempt on Georgia's first overtime possession. Walsh missed, and Michigan State eventually won in triple overtime ... after a Walsh kick that was blocked.

What it means: Michigan State ends its five-game losing streak in bowl games and gives Dantonio his first bowl win as the Spartans' head coach. With 11 wins and a bowl win, Michigan State should be overflowing with confidence heading into the offseason. This likely will make the Spartans a top-10 team to open the 2012 season. For Georgia, this loss will sting for a while. The conservative play calling late and the missed field goal likely will be brought up a lot with this team. The Bulldogs should return a talented team that will have it near top-10 status, though.

Record performance: Brandon Boykin's stellar 92-yard punt return is the longest play in Outback Bowl history. Less than two minutes earlier, Aaron Murray's 80-yard touchdown pass to Tavarres King stood as the longest play in the bowl's 26-year existence. It was also a career-long pass for Murray and a career-long reception for King. Also, King's 205 receiving yards were a Georgia school record.

Record performance 2: Walsh's eight points on kicks made him the SEC's all-time leading scorer with 411 points.
Halftime has arrived in Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville.

Let's take a look at how the Big Ten teams are faring in the Florida bowls so far.

Nebraska-South Carolina, Capital One: A really good half for Nebraska ended in disaster, as the Huskers allowed a 51-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery on the final play. Rather than leading 13-9, the Huskers go to the locker room down 16-13 -- and Bo Pelini has to be beside himself. His defense simply couldn't let a star like Jeffery get in position to make a play. Nebraska should have been leading by more had Ameer Abdullah not fumbled in the South Carolina red zone. Credit Nebraska's defense for preventing disaster after a long Jeffery reception set South Carolina up to completely change the game. The Huskers' defense forced a field goal try inside their own 10-yard line, and South Carolina missed. The offense has been balanced so far and has found some room against a very good South Carolina defense. Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead both are making plays, and until the final seconds, the Blackshirts did a decent job against Connor Shaw and the Gamecocks' passing attack.

Michigan State-Georgia, Outback: The Spartans' defense actually played a phenomenal half but had little to show for it, as an anemic offense has hurt Michigan State against an SEC opponent in a bowl for the second straight year. A special-teams breakdown capped a horrendous second quarter, as Georgia leads 16-0 at the break. Michigan State fell behind 2-0 after a questionable swing pass from inside its own end zone resulted in a safety. The defense kept the score that way until late in the half, when Georgia's Tavarres King beat Michigan State safety Trenton Robinson for an 80-yard touchdown. After the offense stalled yet again, Michigan State allowed a 92-yard punt return for a touchdown. Kirk Cousins and the Spartans' offense must get something going soon after recording only two first downs and 72 total yards in the opening half. Georgia's defense looks faster and more physical, and Michigan State's play calling has been unimpressive. The Spartans are staring at another humbling bowl performance.

Ohio State-Florida, TaxSlayer.com Gator: Buckeyes fans won't be sorry to see offensive coordinator Jim Bollman go. Ohio State didn't pass the ball in the first quarter -- it took one sack -- even though freshman quarterback Braxton Miller threw the ball well in a Nov. 26 loss at Michigan. Things opened up a bit in the second quarter, and Miller finished the half 4-for-6 passing for 53 yards and a touchdown. Florida leads 14-10 thanks to a 99-yard kick return touchdown by Andre Debose. Ohio State entered the game ranked 10th nationally in kick coverage. The Buckeyes' defense has been so-so, letting Florida quarterback John Brantley get a bit too comfortable but forcing a pair of turnovers. Ohio State must get better on third down, as Florida has converted 4 of 6 opportunities. These teams are evenly matched, and Ohio State should have a shot to win if it can limit the major breakdowns.

Outback Bowl: Keys for Georgia

January, 1, 2012
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A look at three keys to the game for Georgia in its Outback Bowl matchup with Michigan State on Monday:

1. No special teams breakdowns: These are two evenly matched teams, so the last thing Georgia can afford to do is get wasted in the kicking game. It’s been a recurring problem for the Bulldogs, who’ve given up five special teams touchdowns this season. They’ve also had a punt blocked, and place-kicker Blair Walsh has missed 12 field goals this season. At the very least, they need to play to a draw in special teams.

2. Crank up Crowell: Freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell says the left ankle injury that plagued him at the end of the regular season has healed and that he’s ready to go. Michigan State’s run defense is nasty. The Spartans are ranked No. 12 nationally against the run and are allowing just 104.3 yards per game. Crowell needs to soften up that run ‘D’ with some big gainers to open up things for QB Aaron Murray and the Georgia passing game.

3. Hit the Spartans early: Michigan State has had great success under Mark Dantonio, but he's lost four straight bowl games at the school, including last season’s 49-7 debacle to Alabama. If Georgia can strike quickly and build an early lead, there could be a “here we go again mentality” that grips the Spartans.

Outback Bowl keys

January, 1, 2012
1/01/12
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Here are three keys for Georgia in its Outback Bowl matchup with Michigan State on Monday:

Keep Isaiah Crowell on his feet: The freshman running back has a knack for visiting the training table a little too often during games. His inability to stay in the game hurt the Bulldogs' rhythm on offense, and against a defense like Michigan State's, Crowell has to stay on the field and with his helmet on. The Spartans are allowing less than 3 yards per carry and rank fifth nationally in total defense. Besting this defense with a one-dimensional offense will be extremely tough.

Tighten up on special teams: Georgia was really bad on special teams this season. The Bulldogs allowed two kickoffs and punt returns to go for touchdowns this season, were 11th in the SEC in net punting and were eighth in kickoff coverage. Michigan State averaged 24.3 yards per kickoff return and scored two touchdowns on punt returns. Winning the field-position battle will be very important for both teams, considering the the play of each defense.

Keep two eyes on B.J. Cunningham: Michigan State's wide receiver has really had a nose for the end zone of late. He has nine touchdown catches in the past four games, including grabbing three in the Big Ten championship. He has 12 touchdowns overall and is second in the Big Ten with 1,240 receiving yards. He's also averaging 17.2 yards per catch.
Two top-five defenses go at it when No. 16 Georgia (10-3) takes on No. 17 Michigan State (10-3) in the Outback Bowl:

WHO TO WATCH: Georgia running back Isaiah Crowell was questioned from time to time this season for multiple reasons. Some weren't sure whether he was in the right playing shape; there were times where he seemed too fragile out on the field; and his off-the-field issues certainly hurt his reputation. Freshmen go through growing pains, but because of his star power, Crowell's shortcomings were magnified. Crowell said after the SEC championship game -- a game in which Georgia fans booed him -- that he wanted to take more responsibility and help the Bulldogs more. Here's a chance for Crowell to take that first step against a rush defense that ranks 12th nationally and is giving up just 2.9 yards per carry.

WHAT TO WATCH: Something has to give with these two defenses. Both are ranked in the top six of the FBS in yards per game and yards per play this season. Georgia and Michigan State have both forced 106 negative plays, which is the fifth most in FBS. But both are also equipped with pretty good offenses. The Bulldogs are averaging 413.8 yards and 32 points per game, while Michigan State is getting 390.4 yards and 31 points a contest. Aaron Murray was second in the SEC in passing, while Kirk Cousins was third in the Big Ten in passing. Both defenses gave up a good amount of points in their conference championships, so they'll both be looking to rebound in Tampa, Fla., but someone's defense will falter at the wrong time.

WHY WATCH: There's the classic SEC-Big Ten matchup, the identical 10-3 records and the very talented defenses. Sounds fun to me. For Georgia, Mark Richt & Co. have come a very long way since that 0-2 start. Georgia won 10 straight en route to its first SEC title game appearance since 2005. Richt began the year on the hot seat but is far away from those days. This is a chance for the Bulldogs to get some momentum heading into the spring before a season in which Georgia will no doubt be a popular favorite in the SEC East.

PREDICTION: Georgia 27, Michigan State 24. The Bulldogs were one of the hottest teams in the country before getting blasted by LSU in the SEC championship game. Michigan State was also a victory away from the Rose Bowl. Both sport top-five defenses and fun offenses. This one could be one of the top bowl games of the year and should come down to the very end with Georgia squeaking by.
Let's take a look at three keys for Michigan State in its Outback Bowl game against Georgia:

1. Establish a running game: The Spartans averaged 38.6 points in their final five games. Why was the offense clicking so well? "I think it was because we were running the ball well," receiver B.J. Cunningham said. "That opens up the pass for us. When we get our running game going, I feel like we can't be stopped." He's right. With Le'Veon Bell coming on strong at tailback and an improved offensive line, Michigan State had a balanced attack that kept defenses on their heels. They'll need to do the same against Georgia, which won't be easy since the Bulldogs ranked ninth in rushing defense this season. But if the Spartans can make Georgia respect the run, Kirk Cousins will have a lot more time and options in the passing game. They certainly can't do any worse than last year's bowl game, when they finished with minus-48 rushing yards in a 49-7 loss to Alabama.

2. Jerel Worthy vs. Ben Jones: The best one-on-one matchup in this game will happen right in the middle of the trenches. Michigan State defensive tackle Worthy and Georgia center Jones are both All-Americans, and it will be fun to see who wins those individual battles. Whether Worthy can get penetration or just occupy Jones and his helpers, the Spartans need to put pressure on Dawgs quarterback Aaron Murray. Michigan State loves to blitz and bring heat from all angles, including cornerback Johnny Adams flying in off the edge. That will be big in this game, as Murray has the ability to carve up a defense if he can feel comfortable in the pocket.

3. Win special teams: With two of the nation's top five defenses squaring off, this could be a low-scoring contest. That makes special teams even more important, and Michigan State's big wins often include at least one crucial play in the kicking game. Maybe it's the Spartans blocking a kick or a punt, as they did in the first meeting with Wisconsin this season, or maybe it's Keshawn Martin bringing back a punt return. Punter Mike Sadler will be key in the field-position battle. And of course, you always have to be on the lookout for fakes and trick plays from Mark Dantonio's team. The Spartans may need a big play in that area to get over the hump and finally win a bowl game.
Both Michigan State and Georgia fell short in their respective league title games, and as a result they'll meet in a Florida bowl for the second time in four years. The Spartans are searching for their first bowl win under coach Mark Dantonio. Georgia is 7-3 in bowls under coach Mark Richt but had an ugly performance last year in a loss to Central Florida.

Let's take a look at the Outback Bowl, taking place Monday in Tampa.

WHO TO WATCH: Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins. He played his best football in the final stretch of the regular season, recording passer ratings of 160 or higher in each of his final five contests and tossing 13 touchdowns against only two interceptions during the span. But Cousins will go against the best defense he has faced all season, a Georgia unit ranked third nationally in yards allowed and fourth in pass efficiency defense. Cousins struggled against Nebraska's defense on Oct. 30 and had a very rough day last year against Alabama in the Capital One Bowl. Captain Kirk should set the tone for MSU in this game as he looks to spread the ball to wideouts B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin.

WHAT TO WATCH: The Spartans defensive line going against Aaron Murray and Isaiah Crowell. Murray can pick apart a defense if given time, and Michigan State will need to pressure the Georgia quarterback with a line that doesn't have great depth entering the game. The Spartans will look for Jerel Worthy, William Gholston and others to log significant snaps and make plays. Crowell, the Bulldogs' heralded freshman, is expected to play despite an ankle injury, although Ken Malcome and Richard Samuel also are expected to get carries. Michigan State ranks 12th nationally in rush defense and seventh in sacks. The bowl is the time for Pat Narduzzi's defense to shine.

WHY TO WATCH: After a heartbreaking loss in the Big Ten championship, Michigan State tries to respond and win its first bowl game since the 2001 Silicon Valley Football Classic. The Spartans arguably ended the season playing better than any Big Ten team, and a victory would secure a second consecutive 11-win season and possibly a spot in the top 10 of the final polls. Dantonio always talks about the need to "play up," and after an embarrassing bowl loss to Alabama last year, Michigan State has a great opportunity to take down an SEC team and send a historically successful senior class out on a good note.

PREDICTION: Michigan State 21, Georgia 20. The teams are evenly matched and it could go either way, but Cousins and the Spartans' seniors are hungry to check off one of the few milestones they haven't achieved in their college careers. Michigan State gets a strong performance from the defense, and the offense once again emphasizes the quick passes it executed in the Big Ten title game to get Cunningham and Martin in space. Cousins finds Cunningham for the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.
Michigan State had every reason to be down after its loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.

A terrific year that saw the Spartans compile the best regular-season conference record ended in heartbreaking fashion. The 42-39 defeat included plenty of what-if moments, and for the second straight year the team narrowly missed out on the BCS.

There have been plenty of examples of teams suffering tough losses in conference title games and following that up with a flat bowl performances. See Alabama in 2008. Or Nebraska last year.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Cunningham
Michael Hickey/US PresswireThe Outback Bowl is the final chance for B.J. Cunningham to get a postseason win.
Here's the thing, though. Michigan State might not be playing in the Rose Bowl, but it has no excuse for not putting forth its best possible performance in the Jan. 2 Outback Bowl against Georgia.

A lack of motivation should not even be on the table for the Spartans. This is a program, after all, that hasn't won a bowl game since the 2001 Silicon Valley Classic. Mark Dantonio and this senior class have accomplished many things, including back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in 45 years, a share of the Big Ten title last year and a division crown this season. Getting the bowl monkey off their back is clearly the next hurdle for the program.

"It would complete our seniors' careers," receiver B.J. Cunningham told ESPN.com. "I've gone to five bowl games, and I've never had [a victory]. It would be a nice little cap to our seniors, and I feel like it would only be right to go out with a win against Georgia, a great team from a great conference."

Dantonio said the team had two main goals in the preseason. The first, of course, was making the Rose Bowl. Right behind that was winning the final game of the year.

"We talked about having a legacy here and passing things on to others," Dantonio said. "It's important we take this next step in the bowl game, that we come out energized. That's my job, our coaches' jobs, it's all of our jobs to get excited to play."

If not for legacy, then how about for pride? The last time Michigan State played a January bowl game against an SEC opponent, it got absolutely creamed by Alabama, 49-7 in the 2011 Capital One Bowl. Sure, the Crimson Tide was on a mission after their loss to Auburn to end the year, and their berth in this year's BCS title game proved their talent. But it was still an embarrassing showing for both the Spartans and the Big Ten.

Cunningham said the team learned from that experience.

"We need to come out early and be on point," he said. "If something negative does happen, you've got to bounce back. Face adversity, turn around and make something good out of it. You can't just get mad and cry about it."

The Spartans proved they could come back from tough times this season, responding after losses to Notre Dame and Nebraska to put together winning streaks. They need to do that again now.

And if not for pride, then how about for the future? Michigan State is ranked 12th in both The Associated Press and USA Today polls. An 11th victory and a win over an SEC opponent could easily propel the team to a top-10 final ranking. That could help serve as a springboard for next year's team, which loses valuable seniors like Cunningham, quarterback Kirk Cousins, receiver Keshawn Martin and quite possibly junior defensive tackle Jerel Worthy to the NFL but still returns a very strong nucleus.

And if all else fails, the Spartans have the whole SEC versus Big Ten thing to think about.

"Georgia's got good players and the SEC is supposed to be one of the best conferences in the country," Cunningham said. "We're going to see on January 2nd, but we've got a good team, too. We'll come ready to play, and it should be fun."

Michigan State has no excuse for it to go any other way.

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