Michigan State's latest bowl comeback helped validate another stellar year for Mark Dantonio and his Spartans.
Before Thursday's 42-41 victory over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl, Michigan State was without a head-turning victory this season. Sure, the Spartans' only losses were against Oregon and Ohio State - who will play each other for the national championship - but Michigan State still had a lot to prove in its postseason game.
The seventh-ranked Spartans (11-2) rose to the occasion, outscoring fourth-ranked Baylor 21-0 in the fourth quarter. Connor Cook threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Keith Mumphery with 17 seconds remaining.
''Beat an outstanding football team and came back and did it with just grit really, just grit and guts and just belief in each other,'' said Dantonio, who has now coached Michigan State to four straight bowl wins. ''So, so happy for our players.''
The Spartans have overcome double-digit deficits to win four straight bowls, the first time any team has done that since at least 1996, according to STATS. Michigan State had been hoping for a berth in college football's new playoff this year, but that possibility fell apart when a home loss to Ohio State in November left the Spartans with little hope of winning the Big Ten.
Michigan State also lost at Oregon in September, and an October win over Nebraska was probably the Spartans' best victory of the regular season. They did roll up big margins of victory against lesser opponents within the Big Ten, and the win over Baylor gives Michigan State even more legitimacy.
It's the second consecutive year the Spartans have won a major bowl. They beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl in 2014.
''It's just a feeling we have on our football team, and when you have that feeling, that chemistry, you're difficult to beat,'' Dantonio said. ''Inevitably, you may lose a football game, but you won't lose the war and that's the thing. Coming out of a football game, we'll still be OK regardless of what happens.''
Michigan State will have to replace running back Jeremy Langford and receiver Tony Lippett, two standout seniors. Junior quarterback Connor Cook is a candidate to turn pro, but he said recently he felt he had ''unfinished business'' at Michigan State.
Junior cornerback Trae Waynes told his hometown newspaper he plans to enter the NFL draft.
''I'm sure it's kind of obvious,'' Waynes told the Kenosha News of Wisconsin. ''Yeah, I'm gonna go.''
Michigan State's biggest loss might be defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who leaves to take the head coaching job at Pittsburgh. Narduzzi's defenses have been instrumental to Michigan State's success under Dantonio.
The Spartans improved enough offensively this season that they could challenge top opponents even when Michigan State's defense struggled to stop teams such as Oregon, Ohio State and Baylor. The final score of the Cotton Bowl was by no means an indictment of Narduzzi's defense - but more an affirmation of what a complete team the Spartans had become.
Narduzzi's imminent departure made the victory that much more emotional.
''To win the last game like that for Coach Narduzzi ... that will be a memory for life,'' Dantonio said. ''He's been incredibly loyal here. He's an extremely hard worker. He's been extremely successful, and now it's time for him to grow.
''He'll grow as the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh. They're getting a great football coach and a great person and a guy who is going to impact young people. So it's going to be very exciting for him as well as his family.''