U of_M_players There is a little more than seven months before the start of the 2012 college football season, but for the Michigan State University Spartans and the University of Michigan Wolverines, an early ESPN Top 2012 poll has the Spartans sitting at a lofty No. 9 and the Wolverines posted at No. 11.

Sure their order is subject to change frequently, but the Great Lakes State has proven to be very relevant in the NCAA football hierarchy as evidenced by both of the state’s most noteworthy teams winning 2012 bowl games.

MSU finished the 2011-12 Final USA Today Coaches Poll at No.10, equaling the third Top 10 finish in that poll’s history and it was the first since 1999 (No. 7 with a 10-2 record).

The Spartans’ had a 33-30 triple-overtime victory over Georgia in the 2012 Outback Bowl, and Michigan State (11-3) moved up three positions to No. 10. The Spartans have been ranked in the USA Today Poll for 29 consecutive weeks, the longest streak for the program since the national newspaper began administering the poll in 1991.

Michigan State’s 11 wins tied the school single-season record, as the Spartans became bowl eligible for a school-record fifth consecutive year. The Spartans won the 2011 Big Ten Legends Division title with a 7-1 record and played in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game. MSU defeated three ranked opponents (AP rankings: No. 11 Michigan, No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 18 Georgia) in the same season for the first time since 2001.

“After winning a school-record 11 games in 2010 and the school’s first Big Ten Championship in 20 years, some wondered how Michigan State would manage higher expectations heading into the 2011 season,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “We went out and won 11 games for the second year in a row. So in 2011, we proved that this program isn’t a flash in the pan, it’s been built for long-term, sustained success.

“We’re very excited about the strides the program has taken over the last five years, so now we’ll focus on climbing the next mountain. We’re on the verge of accomplishing some special things here at Michigan State.”

Meanwhile, the University of Michigan football team finished the season ranked No. 9 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll following its 23-20 overtime victory over Virginia Tech in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

U-M (11-2) finished the season ranked in the Top 10 for the first time since 2006, when the Wolverines also finished 11-2 and No. 9 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll. The 2011 Wolverines became only the ninth squad to win 11 games in a season, and the fifth team in the modern era.

The 2011 Michigan Wolverines played in the Legends Division of the Big Ten Conference and finished second behind the Spartans. No matter, led by first-year head coach Brady Hoke, who followed the dismissal of previous head coach Rich Rodriguez, whose defense had proven to be woeful, Hoke completely turned UM around in one season.

Michigan achieved bowl eligibility following its week six victory against Northwestern — marking its best start to a season since 2006 — and finished the season with a Big Ten best 11–2 overall and 6–2 in Big Ten play.

The amazingly improved U-M led the Big Ten in rushing defense (115.6 yards per game). The season was also highlighted by the first pair of 1000-yard rushers since the 1975 team (Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint). Because of the team’s significant improvement Hoke earned the Big Ten Conference Coach of the Year Award from both the media and the coaches.

“How our guys stayed together, complemented each other this year was Michigan football,” Hoke said. “I’m just real proud, real proud of our seniors, real proud of how they took this football team last January and molded it and did a tremendous job.”

Said junior quarterback Robinson: “I feel like this was a team that didn’t quit, we just kept fighting. We held everybody accountable for what we had to do to have a winning season.”

Concurred senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen: “We’ve faced a lot of adversity since we’ve been here. The Sugar Bowl game was kind of just a microcosm for what happened to us so far as a senior class, and it’s been an amazing turnaround for this year, and I think the seniors left an amazing legacy.”

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or Twitter @LelandSteinIII.

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