It's time for Spartans to take next step

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.

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.

“We’re not going to come into that football game and say, ‘Well, we didn’t play well because we weren’t motivated,’" head coach Mark Dantonio told ESPN.com. "That’s not going to happen. That’s never been an excuse here. We’ve had the ability in five years year to rise up after something’s happened and play very well, whether it be an off-field situation or a tough loss. Whatever the case is, our guys have responded.”

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. 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."

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.