By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State has covered a lot of ground since finding out exactly where it stood on Jan. 1, 2011.
In the days, months and years that followed the 49-7 mauling - which probably could have been much worse - by No. 15 Alabama in the Capital One Bowl that day, the program has taken the necessary steps in player development, recruiting and facilities improvement to consistently compete at college football's highest level.
Just one year later, the Spartans upset Southeastern Conference power Georgia, which lost the SEC Championship Game to LSU, which was obliterated by Alabama in the national title game.
Three seasons after being run out of Orlando, MSU ran the table in Big Ten, ripping up No. 2-ranked Ohio State's designs on the last championship of the BCS era along the way, with a 34-24 victory in the conference final.
Only a flawed loss at Notre Dame kept Michigan State from being seriously considered to play for the National Championship, but months later, head coach Mark Dantonio openly admitted that he would have liked the Spartans' chances against either of the teams that did - Florida State and Auburn.
The Seminoles defeated the Tigers, who, by the way, beat Alabama in their SEC regular-season finale.
The Spartans may not have won it all in 2013, but they did satisfy a ferocious longing by winning the Rose Bowl, where they beat the team that beat the team they will play Saturday in what's being billed as the most significant contest on the national non-conference schedule.
The comparative-score game is usually played by also-rans who rationalize their team to greater glory by connecting the dots between a series of events carried out by common opponents.
The purpose of this exercise, however, isn't to argue that Michigan State deserves anything it didn't actually earn on the field.
Rather, the Spartans' 24-20 win against Stanford on Jan. 1 in Pasadena is a gauge to be used to help determine their readiness, after three years, to play No. 3 Oregon on the biggest regular-season stage possible.
The Cardinal, after all, knocked the then-No. 2 Ducks out of the National Championship hunt last season with a 26-20 upset on Nov. 7. And Stanford is built along the lines of Michigan State more than any other Pac-12 team - in fact, the Cardinal and Spartans were often called mirror images before meeting in the Rose Bowl.
If there's a physical or mental rationale for Oregon being installed as a near-prohibitive two-touchdown favorite, seventh-ranked MSU isn't buying it.
"Coach D brought this up today at practice," fifth-year senior cornerback Trae Waynes said Tuesday. "This is another stepping stone toward getting to where we're going as a program. The way we played against Stanford gives us confidence overall for this game and all our games."
Oregon is renowned for its flash-and-dash, up-tempo offense loaded with fleet-footed athletes led by dual-threat quarterback Marcus Mariota, but Waynes considered how the Spartans matched up against SEC and Pac-12 speed in the recent past.
"We have speed, too," he said.
The game will be played in Oregon's raucous Autzen Stadium, which is hosting a Top-10 matchup for the first time. But, there are ways to neutralize such advantages. In the 2000 Citrus Bowl, MSU countered Florida's supposedly superior speed, in what was effectively a home game for the Gators, with physical play in every facet en route to a 37-34 victory.
"That's the kind of football we play, smash-mouth football where we're going to run it right at you," said center Jack Allen. "We're not going to run away and throw it over them. We're going to run right at `em. That's what we need to do. That's what we're built off of.
"At the same time, it's two different teams now. It's not Oregon from last year, it's not us from last year and it's not Stanford from last year. So, you've got to look at it that way, but toughness is going to help us win."
Stanford dominated the Ducks while building a 26-0 lead and harassed Mariota, a frontrunner in the 2014 Heisman Trophy race, unmercifully. The Cardinal sacked Mariota three times and held him to minus-16 rushing yards to improve to 3-2 in its last five games against Oregon.
"We have watched Stanford to see what they do because they play pretty similar to us," said middle linebacker Taiwan Jones. "But we have different defensive schemes which will help us and by game-time we'll be ready for everything they throw at us.
"One of the things Michigan State is pretty much known for is smash-mouth football and we pride ourselves on toughness. So we're going to go out there and play our game. We're going to try not to be caught by surprise by the fast-paced offense, but no matter what, continue to play Michigan State football."
Offensively, Stanford held off Oregon with a game-control attack that amassed 274 yards on 66 rushes - for a 4.2-yards-per-carry average. The Cardinal completed just 7-of-13 passes for only 103 yards, 47 of which came on one play.
"You just see what they did and how they were successful," said quarterback Connor Cook. "If they were successful at running certain plays, maybe we'll try to incorporate some of them and try to see how Stanford hurt them.
"They have a great offense and a great defense and we've got good offense and a good defense. I think it's going to be a pretty even matchup. I'm just grateful to be in a situation to play in Oregon, play against a great team in a game covered by (ESPN's) College GameDay."
Given the way how the new playoff system will be determined by a committee that will take quality wins and losses into consideration when it selects the four-team field, the outcome of this came could loom all season long for both teams.
"I feel like we're already building our stepping stones," said defensive end Shilique Calhoun. "We're taking those steps toward being an elite program and this is another game that we have to win to take another step. They have done great things over the years. We don't want to be them; we want to be us, but we definitely want to match their success and be as progressive as they've been over the years.
"I don't know (if winning this game) will show that we arrived, but it will show that we can go to these other conferences and show that we can compete. This is one of those games that we can come out and prove ourselves, and prove what Michigan State has to offer."
Didn't the Spartans already do that by beating the team that beat the team?
"I guess not," Calhoun said. "Not yet. It's a new year; it's a new team so I guess we have to start all over again."