EAST LANSING, Mich. - Much of the attention directed at the Big Ten seems to fall on Ohio State and Michigan because of their history of success, but the often overlooked Michigan State Spartans just keep chugging along - and winning.
The Spartans are 34-4 since the start of the 2013 season, the third-most wins in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Their 63 wins since 2010 are the most in the Big Ten over that period.
Of course, people might say they've been a little lucky this season. The Spartans defeated Michigan and Ohio State on the last plays of the game – a bad decision by the Wolverines' punter that led to a 38-yard fumble return for a touchdown, a 41-yard field goal that gave them their only lead of the game. And they needed a TD with 43 seconds to play to defeat Rutgers.
Penn State coach James Franklin probably doesn't look at the Spartans as lucky. He is impressed with what he calls "a culture of winning that they've established now."
For all its success, Michigan State now has an opportunity to take the extra steps to make the 2015 season very special.
First of all, the Spartans (10-1, 6-1) need a victory Saturday over Penn State to capture the Big Ten East and play in the conference championship game against Iowa. A win there probably gets them a berth in the College Football Playoff where they can match Ohio State's 2014 achievement of a national championship.
The culture has been built in Mark Dantonio's nine years as head coach. It's something that Franklin would like to take back to Penn State now that the effects of the NCAA sanctions gradually are fading, although he admits it could take "a number of years" to happen.
"Obviously we're just coming out of some of the challenges that we've been through," he said. "It takes some time in terms of creating your identity on offense, defense and special teams. I'm talking about the program's identity and then get all the pieces of the puzzle meshing well together.
"That's the coaches, the players, the depth from freshman, sophomore, junior, senior classes and the older guys teaching the young guys what it takes to be successful academically, athletically, socially, the whole package. It's all those things because you can't be successful in one area and not the others. You've got to do it in every area."
Penn State has lost back-to-back games since defeating Illinois four weeks ago for its seventh victory, matching its total of wins for the 2014 season. Franklin and his team would love to improve on that number on Saturday and in a bowl game.
But the Nittany Lions have had problems with consistency in protecting Christian Hackenberg (sacked 36 times), in converting third downs (they're second-to-last in the nation at 27.6 percent), and keeping opponents from scoring in the red zone (21 touchdowns, six field goals, in 30 trips).
"You have to make sure that you're able to bounce back as a team and take advantage of every opportunity that you have and compete," Hackenberg said. "It's the greatest team game in the world for a reason, and when you're playing a good team, you've got to expect some back and forth there."