The Spartans opened the year of 2015 with a statement — defeating Baylor in a 42-41 come-from-behind victory in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1.

Missing a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff, head coach Mark Dantonio implored MSU to “Reach Higher” this season. The Spartans did just that, and will play in the Cotton Bowl for the second time this year in a playoff game against Alabama on Dec. 31.

MSU’s quest for greatness has come full circle.

“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.

In more ways than one, this game represents a milestone for Dantonio, who was an assistant coach under Alabama head coach Nick Saban when Saban was the head coach of the Spartans from 1995-1999. Dantonio said much of what he learned about preparation and organization comes from Saban’s example.

“A lot of what I learned when I was here, and let’s not be — it was difficult. It’s difficult. There are challenges,” Dantonio said. “You guys know that. But I think my relationship with Coach Saban, with Nick Saban, is excellent. He’s truly a mentor of mine.”

The game will also serve as a marker for how far Dantonio has brought the MSU program, which lost the first four bowl games of Dantonio’s coaching tenure. The Spartans have since won four consecutive, and Dantonio looks at MSU’s 49-7 loss to Alabama in the 2010 Capital One Bowl as a stepping stone to get to where the program is today.

“The last three years, which these guys have all been a part of up here, there’s been a tremendous amount of success,” Dantonio said. “You know, when you look at the big scheme of things, in 2013, we sort of climbed our way to the Rose Bowl, won the Rose Bowl, ended up No. 3. Last year we had two very big games that were against what I would call heavyweights at that point in time that played for the National Championship, and we were ahead in both of those games but eventually lost to them. So the drive was to get farther, and the drive was to play better on a big stage.”

MSU’s defense will be primarily tested by Alabama junior running back and Heisman-winner Derrick Henry, who rushed for 1986 yards and 23 touchdowns. The Spartans had the second-best rush defense in the Big Ten last season and improved and the year went on, holding Ohio State to a season-low 95 total rushing yards on Nov. 21. The Spartans have not faced a running back as talented as Henry, however.

“It’ll be a great test, for us and for the defense as a whole,” sophomore safety Montae Nicholson said. “He’s a great back and we have to prepare for him, because we’ve seen the things that he’s done, seen the things that he can do. We’re just going to try and go down there and play our best football game.”

MSU’s games against Ohio State and Iowa were likely a preview of what to expect against Alabama —a lot of physical, exhausting action at the line of scrimmage.

“It’s a must. And that’s how we should always, not only against those guys, but always; that should be our mind-set, our mentality going into every game,” MSU co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. “And they have done that, especially in the month of November for the most part, we have done that. That’s a good mantra so we don’t keep pumping it out and keep getting it done.”

If Alabama has the advantage at running back, it’s safe to say MSU has the advantage at quarterback. That is, if Connor Cook is healthy. Cook was less than 100 percent against Iowa, and it was evident judging by the accuracy of some of his throws.

Cook expects to be healthy by game time, which bodes well for MSU. Cook has performed as one of the best quarterbacks in college football this season and will be a challenge for the Tides’ secondary.

“His accuracy this year has stood out for me,” MSU co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said of Cook. “There’s been some games where he’s put the ball on the money time after time after time, and it’s not a great pass and you’re really surprised that he didn’t put it on the money. It’s one of those deals. That’s been really impressive to me this year.”

Just one game separates the Spartans from a National Championship game. For Dantonio’s “Reach Higher” mantra to come true, it’ll take a complete effort from the offense, defense and special teams.

“For the guys, we understand that we’re playing for something bigger than ourselves, that we’re playing for something bigger than just a Big Ten title here,” Cook said. “We’re playing for the opportunity to make it to the National Championship, and I think that’s pretty much all that needed to be said to those guys for them to want to push forward and understand that we need to reach higher, as Coach D would say.”