Big Ten: Oh so close ...

Michigan State stands at No. 10 in the BCS standings, so it's obviously a strong contender for a BCS Bowl -- even if it doesn't knock off Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.

The Spartans (11-1, 8-0 Big Ten) must remain within the top 14 to qualify for a BCS bowl, so a loss wouldn't necessarily disqualify them. Orange Bowl officials were on hand during Saturday's game, and the Rose Bowl could always elect to stick with the Big Ten, even though it wouldn't be obligated if the Buckeyes move on to the national title.

There's obviously still quite a few "what ifs" to this postseason picture, but the fact is that Michigan State is in great shape right now. Here's a closer look at just how it's gotten here and how close it was from 12-0:

Where it all started: Preseason expectations were all over the map. One media outlet would say the Spartans belonged in the top 15, and then the coaches' poll would put them at No. 28. Another actually predicted a spot in the Rose Bowl, while this blog labeled MSU as the sixth-best team … in the conference.

Everyone agreed on a few things, however. The defense would be among the best in the nation, while the offense would decide just how far this team would go. And that's exactly what happened.

The Spartans' offense started off slow -- incredibly slow -- while the defense shined. In the first two games, a four-way crisis at quarterback loomed but the defense picked up the slack by scoring four touchdowns to the offense's two. The dust eventually settled at quarterback, Connor Cook came out on top, and tailback Jeremy Langford emerged around Game 6. Together, the Spartans' offense was no longer a liability.

Where it went wrong: If it wasn't the Sept. 21 loss to Notre Dame, the hype surrounding the Spartans might be nearly as large as the hype around Ohio State. That narrow 17-13 loss is what stopped Mark Dantonio's squad short of perfection.

The Irish took advantage of a trick play in the second half, when MSU receiver R.J. Shelton tossed an interception that led to the go-ahead touchdown. Mistakes and penalties plagued the Spartans, and they just didn't have the offensive firepower at that point in the season to mount a comeback.

Where it got back on track: After the Spartans' lone loss, they bounced right back against a tough Iowa defense on the road. Cook went 25-of-44 for what was then a career-high 277 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception against the nation's No. 9 defense.

Cook never looked back. At one point during the conference season, he even boasted a 93-plus QBR on third downs. The Iowa game was the turning point for the sophomore quarterback and, as a result, one of the turning points for Michigan State.

The heart of the Spartans' Big Ten schedule was at the very end, and they came out on top against Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern and Minnesota. They wouldn't gotten nearly that far if Cook and the offense had continued to sputter.