EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Brian Hoyer is a tough grader. He gives Michigan State's surprising football season a C or a B-minus.
But as the junior quarterback prepares for two sets of finals, his academic exams this week and the 7-5 Spartans' first bowl in four seasons, he knows those marks can soar with a great finish or plunge with a poor performance.
"I think it'll tell a lot about how far we've come and how far we need to go," Hoyer said of a matchup with 10-3 Boston College in the Champs Sports Bowl on Dec. 28 in Orlando. "It's a great opportunity to go against a team that was ranked No. 2 in the nation at one point. We're all very excited about the chance."
The Spartans seemed to be dropping as fast as their spirits after a 28-24 loss to Michigan on Nov. 3 in Spartan Stadium, their fifth loss in six weeks. But a 48-31 win at Purdue and a 35-31 victory over Penn State, after trailing the Nittany Lions 24-7, changed a lot of minds.
"I think we've definitely shown people that this isn't the same team they thought we'd be," Hoyer said. "We've been through rough times. But we've never given up and haven't lost a game by more than seven points. That says a lot about where this program is going and the kind of foundation we've built. It's built on the character of its players. That's what you need to become champions."
To win the Champs Sports Bowl, the highest-scoring team in the Big Ten at 34.1 points per game will have to run the ball against the nation's No. 1 rushing defense to maintain offensive balance. Michigan State also will have to figure a way to contain Eagles quarterback Matt Ryan, a midseason Heisman Trophy candidate who has thrown for 327.5 yards per game.
"It presents a huge challenge to see where we stand as a team," fifth-year center John Masters said of a group that has averaged 426.7 yards per game, behind only Northwestern in the Big Ten. "We'll see how much we've progressed through the season and through the extra practices we've had."
The last time the Spartans had workouts this late, they lost to Nebraska 17-3 in the 2003 Alamo Bowl, the only postseason play in John L. Smith's four seasons as Michigan State. But with a bowl win in Mark Dantonio's debut, the Spartans could go from 4-8 to 8-5 and provide huge boosts in recruiting and for returning players' confidence.
"We've built something here this season," Masters said. "I think it all happened for a reason. And that shows what kind of program Coach Dantonio is building. I know a lot of the young guys are taking extra reps this month. That can only help down the road."
One of the youngest, freshman All-America linebacker Greg Jones, was in the process of committing to Minnesota 12 months ago. But when the Golden Gophers fired Glen Mason two weeks after Michigan State hired Dantonio, the Spartans got a player to build around.
"I was just watching games, hanging out and being a high school kid last year at this time," Jones said. "The college season seems so much longer. But these extra practices can do a lot. Some guys don't get a chance to play. This bowl prep should really help them and everyone else."
It will help a lot when players head home for the holidays as bowl participants, not just spectators, defensive lineman Justin Kershaw said.
"When I went home to a football-crazy city like Columbus and watched the other games, it was really tough," Kershaw said. "The best part is that I get to go home and know I'll come back to play a 13th game. Before, it was always a sad time. Now, everyone here is happy and humble. And the best is yet to come."