By Ashley Scoby

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio called his team’s upcoming Cotton Bowl appearance a “full circle” moment. After winning the same game last season, on Jan. 1 against Baylor, the Spartans will make a return to Dallas on Dec. 31, as the Cotton Bowl takes its turn as a College Football Playoff destination.

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“I think it’s a little bit ironic that we have an opportunity to go full circle and now 365 days later, we play on December 31 at the Cotton Bowl,” Dantonio said. “So with that said, we’ll look to complete our circles and we’ll move from there.”

The program itself is circling back around too, to being a consistent winner and a national contender. Nick Saban (and Bobby Williams) got them to that point to a certain extent a decade earlier, with a 10-2 season and Citrus Bowl win in 1999.

After several years of middling teams in East Lansing, including five losing seasons, Dantonio took over in 2007. Now, Saban’s former assistant will take on his old boss, and attempt to bring Michigan State its first College Football Playoff title.

Just like how the NCAA basketball tournament committee enjoys its storylines, the football playoff committee surely likes its “full circle” moments, too.

“You know, as crazy as it sounds, I stood there and pointed at the ring that I had on my finger the day I was announced that I believed it could happen here, because it had happened here in the past,” Dantonio said. “That was a little bit of a reach forward, but I think you have to do that. I think you have to be bold and you have to dream big.”

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The program did just that. The Spartans weren’t exactly world-beaters this year, winning close game after close game. There weren’t enough blowouts to warrant a playoff spot, critics complained. But Michigan State did what it had to do, and did what no other Spartans team has done before, as this is just the second year of the College Football Playoff.

It’s all been a steady climb for MSU, as the program has learned to do what it had to do year after year.

“We just kept sort of pecking away,” Dantonio said. “We found a way to win and we found a way to get to the bowl games and eventually we found a way to win the bowl games, which we have done the last four times against great opponents, I might odd. And then found a way to win Big Ten Championships and I guess these last three years, I guess we’re 36-4. So I guess maybe fourth best in the country or something like that.”

Building a program that can figure it out when injuries hit, when bad penalty flags are thrown, when the blowouts aren’t happening – that’s what any consistent winner has to do, and it’s what Dantonio has done at Michigan State.

That growth has been on display perhaps the most this year, as the Spartans have won six of their 12 games by a touchdown or less.

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“I think there’s something to be said for when the game is on the line, you’ve got to make a play,” Dantonio said. “And if you’ve made plays before, when it’s on the line, then you get added confidence that you can do it – that you’ve seen it happen and it can be done.”