The Times’ college football countdown: No. 17 Michigan State

The mission statement is clear: Get into the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl without having to pay.

Michigan State’s last gratis trip was 1988, when it defeated USC, 20-17.

Archrival Michigan has made eight parade trips since Michigan State last touched down in Pasadena. Wisconsin has gone Rose bowling five times, and even Northwestern, Illinois and Texas Christian can tell the Spartans what it’s like.

That’s just not right.

While it’s one thing to miss out on a big event, it’s quite another thing to get teased.

Michigan State tied for the Big Ten Conference title two years ago but lost the tiebreaker to Wisconsin.

Last year was pure torture. Michigan State lost a flight-breaker to Wisconsin, 42-39, in the first Big Ten title game.

Michigan State seemed poised to win in the final minutes, after Keshawn Martin returned a punt inside the Wisconsin 10-yard line. The play was nullified, though, when Isaiah Lewis was called for running into kicker Brad Nortman. The penalty allowed Wisconsin to run out the clock.

The play lingered all winter and spring and into the start of summer camp.

“I turned Isaiah loose on that,” Spartans Coach Mark Dantonio said at the team’s media day. “I told him to go get it. That’s my responsibility.”

It said something about Michigan State’s resolve that it bounced back to defeat Georgia in the Outback Bowl.

As this season approaches, the Rose Bowl still beckons. Michigan State is good enough to get there, but will it? The Spartans are one of only seven schools from the big six conferences to win at least 11 games the last two years.

Michigan and Wisconsin, again, appear to pose the biggest obstacles.

The Spartans will have to get there without Kirk Cousins, their Mr. Reliable quarterback the last three seasons. Michigan State also loses 2,000 yards and 16 touchdowns at the receiver position with the departures of Martin and B.J. Cunningham.

The rest of the roster, though, is stacked. The offensive and defensive lines rank among the nation’s best. The nation’s No. 6-rated defense last year returns 18 players from its two-deep, led by defensive end William Gholston.

The new quarterback is junior Andrew Maxwell, whose nickname is “swag” because of the confidence he exudes. If he feels pressure in taking over a top position in a top Big Ten program, he doesn’t show it.

“When they say he has ‘swag,’ I think he lets things roll off his shoulders a little bit,” Dantonio said.

Michigan State needs a few things to break its way. The Spartans defeated Michigan and Wisconsin last year and still couldn’t get to the Rose Bowl.

The team will be tested in its home opener by Boise State, which has begun recent seasons with wins over Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia.

Michigan State has to play at Michigan and Wisconsin, but gets Notre Dame, Ohio State and Nebraska in East Lansing.

“I think we’re in a position of contention,” Dantonio said. “We always are. We keep trying to build a foundation to try to get to that Rose Bowl. We’re not there yet.”

The countdown so far: The countdown so far: 25. Notre Dame; 24. Texas Christian; 23. Utah; 22. Kansas State; 21. Louisville; 20. Boise State; 19. Clemson; 18. Stanford; 17. Michigan State.