Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Capital One Bowl was not supposed be the final destination for its participants.

Alabama was the overwhelming favorite to repeat as national champions. Michigan State went 11-1, split the Big Ten title and was still snubbed by the BCS.

So motivation shouldn't be a problem when the seventh-ranked Spartans face the No. 15 Crimson Tide (9-3) on Saturday.

"We get a chance to make a statement whether we are one of the elite teams in the country at this point in time or not," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "And that's the challenge."

The game also features enough ties between the programs that nobody wants to miss out on bragging rights.

Alabama coach Nick Saban had stints as a head coach at Michigan State (1995-1999) and assistant (1984-1987). He also hired Dantonio as his defensive backs coach while he was there.

Tight ends coach Bobby Williams is another former Michigan State coach, offensive coordinator Jim McElwain is an ex-Spartans assistant and 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram grew up a Spartans fan in Flint, Mich., and has several family members with connections to the school that also made a big push to recruit him.

"I had green and white bed sheets," said Ingram, whose father, Mark, was a star receiver for the Spartans.

The game might also show what direction these two programs are headed.

The Spartans have made major strides in recent years but are 0-3 in bowl games under Dantonio. They are using the game as a springboard into next season after feeling cheated out of a more high-profile game.

Michigan State shared the Big Ten title with Wisconsin and Ohio State, but there were only two spots for the conference in the BCS. The BCS standings were used to break the deadlock, leaving the Spartans out of the mix despite a win over the Badgers. They did not play the Buckeyes this year.

"It is kind of a fight," Michigan State linebacker Jon Misch said, "to prove that we deserve a lot more respect than a lot of people give us."

The bowl could be the last game for many of Alabama's recent stars, including Ingram and receiver Julio Jones. Both are among those who could forgo their senior season and opt for the NFL draft.

Others, such as senior quarterback Greg McElroy, already know this will be their finale. They helped guide the Tide to a national title over Texas in the Rose Bowl a year ago only to lose games to Auburn, LSU and South Carolina this season.

All of them want to finish in style.

"You're not really mentioned among the great Alabama teams unless you win 10 games, so I think that's a definite point of focus for us," McElroy said.

Michigan State players have been reminded all week by Dantonio that a win over Alabama would give them the respect they've craved.

The Spartans were one of the country's biggest surprises in 2010. They stunned Notre Dame with a game-winning fake field goal, played a couple games without Dantonio following his heart attack in mid-September and captured a surprising share of the conference title.

If it wasn't for a loss to Iowa, the Spartans might be playing for the national championship -- or at least have a solid argument they should be. It has been a "storybook season" in so many ways, Dantonio has said repeatedly over the last month, and all they're looking for is a dream finish.

Even if it's not in the place they were dreaming of.

"We've been to bowl games. We've got to win one. We've got to win our last game," he said. "Are we one of the elite teams in the nation right now? We're going to find out."