On the surface, the similarities between Stanford and Michigan State are obvious. Both have outstanding defenses that get after the quarterback. Both have talented lines and hold physicality above all else. So for those who like their football a little more smash-of-mouth, this is the must-watch game of the bowl season.
The early buzz around the 100th Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio is solid. As most publications rank the bowl games from best to worst -- including ESPN -- the Rose Bowl generally falls between the 2-4 range. Not just because it's a BCS bowl game, but because the matchup is so intriguing to many.
Both teams have elite defenses and play a very controlled style of football. That alone sets the stage for a potentially tight contest. And as we know, Stanford is no stranger to tight contests.
"When you play like that, regardless of what happens, you will always be in the game and be in a position to win," said Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov. "When you have two teams that play that style, it's always going to be relatively close. There are a relatively small number of plays or miscues or big plays that end up really making the difference."
For the Cardinal, this will be their fourth-straight appearance in a BCS bowl game, starting with the 2010 Orange Bowl, the 2011 Fiesta and now their second-straight trip to the Rose Bowl.
Despite preseason buzz that the Cardinal would contend for a national championship, head coach David Shaw said there is no disappointment in the Cardinal locker room when it comes to their postseason placement.
"I think four years, 11 wins is pretty damn good," he said. "I'm not big at lamenting what could have been, what should have been, because those things equal wasn't and didn't. I'm good at looking at what is and what has been and these guys have been great. We've played extremely well. That's the goal of the program. We don't set the goal of the program as national championship or bust.
"Teams that do that lose one game and that one loss turns to two and three and four and you start looking down on your season. We take every single game one at a time. We try to grow as the season progresses. And the goal of the program is to be one of those elite teams every year. When the cards fall right and we play great, and we win the right games at the right times, you get that chance to play for national championship or get into a four-team playoff. ... That's the goal, to always be in that discussion, and the last four years we have been in that discussion. That's exciting to me."
And it's exciting to the players. The legacy of this senior class surely will be written about in the coming weeks. And knowing that they were able to win the Pac-12 championship in consecutive years is, in itself, a worthy legacy. Skov said he recalls when he first arrived on campus and even going to a bowl game was considered a big deal. But the Cardinal have upped the ante for themselves every season.
"The key thing is we've maintained that same hunger," Skov said. "No one on this team takes anything for granted. We have that same desire. Instead of becoming complacent, we've become hungrier. The standard has become higher and higher. When we were on the outside looking in (after the USC loss), guys were genuinely hurt. We were disappointed in ourselves. To see how important it is for us to be dominant and to win the Pac-12 ... it's not something we're just happy about. It's an expectation. And we're upset when we don't reach those goals."