EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Brian Hoyer's winter holiday itinerary is solid proof of how far Michigan State has come in the past two seasons.
In late 2006, Hoyer was holed up at home after a disappointing 4-8 season left Michigan State without a bowl trip for the third straight year.
"I'm sitting back in Cleveland where there's two feet of snow and watching games on TV. It was depressing," Hoyer, Michigan State's quarterback, said of those days. "We had never been to a bowl game and we wondered it was like."
Two years later, Hoyer and the Spartans know what the bowl season is all about. They are in Orlando, Fla. for the second consecutive holiday season as No. 19 Michigan State (9-3) prepares for Thursday's Capital One Bowl against No. 16 Georgia (9-3).
The Spartans have a chance to win 10 games in a season for just the third time in school history, joining the 1965 and 1999 squads.
"To win 10 games would be huge, and that is probably my main motivation," said Hoyer, a senior playing his last college game. "It would be a legacy for our class. It would set a foundation for the future."
A solid showing against Georgia would continue an impressive turnaround for Michigan State under second-year coach Mark Dantonio.
The Spartans finished the 2007 season with a 7-6 record and a loss to Boston College in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando. That gave Michigan State enough momentum to enter the 2008 season with loftier goals.
"We are always talking about our program being a work in progress," Dantonio said. "This year our goal was to make it to a New Year's Day bowl game. That was the next progression for us and we have reached that goal, so we are excited about it."
Dantonio, rewarded last week with a new contract that will pay him $1.8 million a year, has helped change expectations within a Michigan State program that had a 14-21 record in the three seasons prior to his arrival.
One of the main differences in Dantonio's second season has been the team's performance in close games.
All six of the Spartans' losses in 2007 were by seven or fewer points. But Michigan State found a way to win a few of those close contests in 2008.
The Spartans defeated Iowa, 16-13, when linebacker Adam Decker stopped Hawkeye tailback Shonn Greene on a fourth-and-inches run from the Michigan State 21-yard line late in the fourth quarter on Oct. 4.
Michigan State erased an 11-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat Wisconsin 25-24 on Nov. 1. The capper was Brett Swenson's 44-yard field goal with 7 seconds left.
"Last year we weren't able to get over the hump in some of those games. This year, we were," said Michigan State running back Javon Ringer, the nation's third-leading rusher at 132.5 yards per game. "We kind of developed and matured a little bit."
On the flip side, the Spartans have been blown out twice this season -- 45-7 by Ohio State on Oct. 18 and 49-18 by Penn State on Nov. 22.
Those two losses are the main reason Michigan State is a 7 1/2-point underdog against Georgia. It's also the best evidence that although the Spartans have come a long way in the past two seasons, there still is a significant gap between them and the elite teams that qualify for the Bowl Championship Series and win Big Ten championships.
A 10th win would be a step toward closing that gap, boosting the program's national exposure and generating more interest among future recruits.
"I'm not going to sit there and say that we have arrived," Dantonio said of the prospects of a 10th win in a New Year's Day game. "But when you win 10 football games ... I think when you are able to do that it points towards success."
Georgia, meanwhile, seeks a 10th win to salvage what has been a disappointing season. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press preseason poll but losses to Florida, Alabama and Georgia Tech left them out of the national championship picture.
"We had a couple of road bumps along the way," Georgia receiver Mohamed Massaquoi said. "We came into this season with a lot of expectations and a lot of hype. Somewhere along the line we fell short of a couple of things that we wanted to accomplish. We want to go out there and play the best we can so that when people remember this team they can remember the last game of the season."