There will be no controversy over the national championship game participants in this final year of the BCS. We’ll get a true championship game, one that requires the SEC champion to be beaten on the field by someone outside their conference, and with a clear alternative having emerged as the challenger. Florida State will play Auburn for the national title on January 6 in Pasadena and we have the Michigan State Spartans to thank for bringing us the clarity.
Michigan State’s 34-24 win over Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game last night ended the Buckeyes undefeated season and paved the way for one-loss Auburn to move alongside undefeated and top-ranked Florida State.
The Big Ten championship played out like a hockey game, in three distinct periods. The Spartans came out rolling, going up 17-0 in the second quarter. They were controlling the line of scrimmage on defense, not allowing Carlos Hyde to get anything going in the conventional running game and chasing down speedy quarterback Braxton Miller.
Then Ohio State got in gear, starting when Miller took off on a 48-yard run on a broken play and then later rifled a perfect 20-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Philly Brown. It was the first of what would be 24 unanswered points stretching into the third quarter. The Buckeyes had the lead, they had all the momentum and the 24-17 lead seemed much larger.
Ohio State’s defense has been a sore spot all season and it’s what would ultimately do them in. Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook has been either ineffective or inconsistent all season. But he threw two long touchdown passes in his team’s early surge and with a championship on the line, head coach Mark Dantonio put the ball in his hands.
Cook, often throwing on first down, led a drive for a field goal to slow the Buckeye momentum. In the fourth quarter, on third-and-goal, he tossed a nine-yard touchdown pass to Josiah Price. With a 27-24 lead, Michigan State’s renowned defense then came up with the sequence of the night.
Ohio State had partially blocked a punt and took over just inside midfield with a chance to at least tie up the game. Facing third-and-three, head coach Urban Meyer quite rightly ran Miller twice. Twice, Sparty stuffed him. Michigan State took over with a little over six minutes left and moved it down the field, with Jeremy Langford rumbling in from 26 yards out to seal the game.
The win cleared up the national championship picture and set up what are potentially some good major bowl games, pending the official announcement that comes tonight on ESPN (8:30 PM ET). Here’s a look at the other big games of Championship Saturday, followed by the final installment of TheSportsNotebook’s BCS bowl projections.
Auburn 59 Missouri 42: On ESPN’s Gameday pregame show, Alabama coach Nick Saban made a guest appearance and called Missouri’s defensive front four the best in the SEC. If that’s true, than the Auburn offensive line must be akin to the Washington Redskins’ Hogs of the 1980s, or the Dallas Cowboys’ front five of the early 1990s.
Tre Mason ran wild, going for over 300 yards, while Auburn as a team rushed for 545 yards. Nick Marshall only had to throw the ball 11 times as his team blew out the scoreboard lights in the Georgia Dome.
Missouri’s offense had its share of moments themselves, with James Franklin throwing for 303 yards and Dorial Green-Beckham, the big talented receiver, making some great plays in the open field, to the tune of 144 yards on six catches. Mizzou led 34-31 at one point in the second half and only trailed 45-42 after three quarters. But they never found answer for Mason.
Florida State 45 Duke 7: Florida State futzed around for a quarter of scoreless play until taking over. Jameis Winston did not play well, throwing two interceptions and making some shaky decisions. We’ll talk about him more next week in Heisman Trophy coverage, but a landslide win for the Seminole quarterback seems a little much.
What’s not too much is talking about the overall excellence of this Florida State team. They produced 239 rush yards, with Devonta Freeman again leading the way, and the defense completely locked down the Duke offense. The Seminoles complete their first undefeated regular season since 1999, the last time they won the national title.
Bowling Green 47 Northern Illinois 27: The contenders for BCS at-large spots in power conferences rejoiced on Friday night, as Northern Illinois’ hopes landed with a thud in this MAC championship game loss. Bowling Green scored on their first possession, led 31-13 by half and quarterback Matt Johnson was 21/27 for 393 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.
It was a great season for the Huskies, who like Ohio State, have just one loss. But like the Buckeyes, they let a previously unaccomplished quarterback who had ridden on the back of his defense, carve them up at the worst possible time.
Oklahoma 33 Oklahoma State 24: If you saw this one coming, then you need to do the responsible thing–quit your job and move to Las Vegas to become a full-time gambler, because you’re a friggin’ genius. Nothing in the month of November suggested the Sooners could match up on the road. But they played even up against the Cowboys throughout, got a special teams touchdown and finally got the go-ahead touchdown pass with 19 seconds left.
One more defensive TD on the final play padded the point total and Oklahoma now has an outside shot at getting chosen for a BCS at-large bid. The issue will likely be this–does the Sugar Bowl opt for the Sooners or for Oregon, presumably to match up with Alabama?
Baylor 30 Texas 10: Oklahoma State’s loss in the noon ET TV window turned this 3:30 PM ET game into a winner-take-all fight for the Big 12 title and Fiesta Bowl bid. The Baylor defense dominated the game, holding Texas to 54 pass yards and used a balanced offense to take control. Congrats to head coach Art Briles for winning this program’s first conference title since 1980, when they were in the old Southwest Conference (along with Arkansas and the seven other major schools in Texas).
Stanford 38 Arizona State 14: This was the most impressive performance of the day. Stanford did everything well. Their shutdown of Arizona State’s run game can be partially explained by the Sun Devils’ not having leading rusher Marion Grice. But there’s no explaining away the Cardinal’s complete control on offense.
Tyler Gaffney took off on a 69-yard touchdown jaunt to start the scoring and he ended with 133 yards? Can we get this kid some love in the Heisman race please? Kevin Hogan, the quarterback whose play was identified as a key to Stanford’s ultimate success, went 12/18 for 277 yards. Allowing Hogan to make this many big plays, without ever forcing him into an interception counts as a major disappointment for Sun Devil coach Todd Graham.
Elsewhere in the country, Central Florida clinched the American Athletic title and an automatic BCS slot. The Knights knew on Thursday night they were in, when Louisville beat Cincinnati in overtime. UCF still took care of their own business, winning a forgettable 17-13 game over SMU in frigid conditions down in Texas.
At the mid-major level, Rice and Fresno State closed out championship seasons, winning Conference USA and the Mountain West respectively. UL-Lafayette missed a chance to win the Sun Belt outright when they lost to South Alabama. ULL still is a co-champ along with Arkansas State and with the league having two contract bowl tie-ins, both will get a postseason opportunity.
FINAL BCS BOWL PROJECTIONS
ACC: Florida State
Big 12: Baylor
Big Ten: Michigan State
American Athletic (old Big East): Central Florida
At-Large (4): Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Oregon
BCS National Championship: Florida State-Auburn
Orange: Ohio State-Clemson
Fiesta: Baylor-Central Florida
Rose: Michigan State-Stanford