Can Sparty Make It Two Big Ten Teams In The Playoff?

Michigan State has moved up to #4 in the AP poll after Saturday night’s exciting 31-28 win over Oregon in East Lansing. A couple of ambitious voters even picked Sparty #1 in the country, taking two votes away from Ohio State. Other than these two voters, I don’t think anyone is ready to challenge the assumption that Ohio State will win the Big Ten and make the College Football Playoff. But the question of whether Michigan State can make it two teams from the Big Ten in the football Final Four is alive and well.

My own biases first—I like Sparty a lot. While I’m a Wisconsin fan first and foremost, Michigan State is in the opposite division and I see them as carrying the banner for the Big Ten’s middle class, as they challenge, and often beat, the bluebloods that are Ohio State and Michigan. But I say that more to let the fans of East Lansing know I’m not trying to pick on Michigan State when I say that I’m still skeptical of this team as top-four group nationally.

The reason is the play in the secondary. The opener against Western Michigan was a shaky 37-24 win where the Spartans gave up 365 yards passing to Zach Terrell and were unable to handle receivers Corey Davis and Daniel Braverman.

Pass defense was pretty good most of the night against Oregon, but with a 31-21 lead, the Ducks suddenly starting carving up the Spartan secondary. Oregon scored one touchdown and really should have won the game, if not for an overthrow of a wide-open receiver down the sideline on the final Duck possession.

Now, if Oregon really is a Top 10 team again, then this is nitpicking. But as I watched the game, I had a sense that this was two teams somewhere between 15th and 20th on the national scale. If that’s the case, then walking through Michigan State’s schedule game-by-game and pointing out how they’ll likely be favored in every game except Ohio State is a wasted exercise, because the Spartans will have a loss somewhere else come and find them.

I’m still open to the notion that might be an overly harsh judgment though, at least for Michigan State. They’ve done an excellent job defending the run, holding Oregon to less than three yards a carry. On the flip side, Madre London and L.J. Scott give them a nice two-headed monster in their own backfield and they led an attack that gashed the Ducks for nearly 200 rushing yards at a pace of over five a pop.

So, they’re running the ball, defending the run and they have a good quarterback in Connor Cook. That’s a nice framework to build on, even if the finished product isn’t quite Playoff-ready. Here’s how the rest of the schedule breaks down.

Air Force—Give Michigan State credit for not shirking anyone in non-conference play. While they’re definitely better than the Falcons this is a tough game, even at home to take on the week after all the emotion of the Oregon game.

Central Michigan, vs. Purdue, at Rutgers—Three straight games on consecutive weeks where Michigan State would really have to shoot themselves in the foot to lose.

at Michigan—The next really big battle on October 17. I think Michigan is better than a lot of people think right now, and that’s because I think Utah is better than a lot of people think. But just like the Spartans have to work on their pass defense, the Wolverines have to work on their passing game, to keep it turnover-free.

Indiana—The Hoosiers are 2-0, but escapes over Southern Illinois and Florida Atlantic make it seem like this program is coming apart at the seams. Hard to see a problem, even allowing for a post-Michigan hangover and even allowing Indiana’s ability to throw the ball. The Hoosiers’ odds of even tackling, much less containing, London and Scott aren’t very good.

at Nebraska, vs. Maryland–Competitive games against bowl teams from last year, although the Terps have now given us reason to be skeptical. Obviously the road trip to Lincoln is the tougher of the two, Michigan State is clearly the better team and there is a bye week in between IU and Nebraska to get ready.

Then comes the trip to Columbus on November 21. For the sake of this discussion we’re assuming a loss, since the point is to assess Michigan State’s chances of making the Playoff as an 11-1 conference runner-up.

Penn State—At the start of the season I saw this a probable battle for the Rose Bowl, but Penn State looks in a lot of trouble right now. Whereas Michigan State has things to work on, Penn State is questioning the very direction of their program. I still like the Lions’ talent and there’s a lot of time between now and November 28, but sitting here in mid-September it’s quickly become impossible to see Sparty losing this one at home.

When you break it down game-by-game, winning every one except Ohio State is doable. The problems with this scenario, at least for making the Playoff, are twofold…

*The first is that we don’t even know if that will be good enough. The Selection Committee has made it clear that conference champions get preference, if not a guarantee, in selection. Will Michigan State be far and away deserving or on the bubble?

*Then there’s the reality that I alluded to above—when you’re not a great team, losses find you. I think the road trips to Ann Arbor and Lincoln would be natural spots to look, but it could come somewhere we don’t expect—even this coming Saturday against Air Force. I need to see evidence that Michigan State is a great team, not just a pretty good one, and I have not seen that yet.

In today’s college football world, you have to defend the pass effectively. Michigan State has to do that with more consistency, or an additional loss beyond Ohio State will find them. Right now, I think it’s much more likely to pencil this team in as the Big Ten representative in the Rose Bowl, rather than as a second rep in the College Football Playoff.