Skip to main content

How Ohio State-Michigan State Could Be a Playoff Statement Game

Mark Dantonio

Mark Dantonio

Entering Saturday, one of the themes for Michigan State and Ohio State will be the differing character of the two programs.

One program features a classic dropback quarterback while the other runs the spread through a pass-run threat. One program gobbles up five-star recruits while the other finds ways to unearth gems for similar results.

Yet when Michigan State looks across the sideline, the Spartans may see a window into their own recent past.

Ohio State started the 2014 season scrambling for answers on offense due to an August a suspect offensive line and a season-ending injury to Heisman contender Braxton Miller.

In a case of playing the wrong opponent at the wrong time, Ohio State lost 35-21 at home in the second week of the season to a Virginia Tech team that has gone 2-3 since. The Hokies’ pass rush rattled redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett into six sacks and three interceptions.

A year ago, Michigan State was the team with an overwhelmed offense early in the season, losing 17-13 to Notre Dame in Week 4.

If Ohio State can defeat Michigan State in East Lansing on Saturday, the Buckeyes could have a chance to do something the Spartans never could — play for a national championship.

One way or another, the winner of Ohio State-Michigan State will present an interesting case for the college football selection committee, an opportunity to show a break for the old system and the flexibility of a more nuanced view of the season.

With the Buckeyes ranked at No. 14, there’s no guarantee this win alone could vault Ohio State into the playoff conversation. 

For starters, strength of schedule would not be a winning argument for Ohio State even if the Buckeyes win in East Lansing. Michigan State is the only ranked opponent Ohio State will play until at least the Big Ten championship game.

The counterpoint would be that Ohio State, despite a loss to Virginia Tech that looks worse and worse each week, has improved to one of the top four teams in the country from the start of September to season’s end.

“What we did in August is much different than what we did in November,” Ohio State coach Meyer said. “(Barrett)’s got the full capacity of the entire offense. The first game of the year was nothing close to this.”

That’s where Ohio State is similar to Michigan State. The Spartans broke last season with Andrew Maxwell at quarterback, and Jeremy Langford was settling into the running back position after playing cornerback and wide receiver a spring earlier.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

A team still finding its way on offense lost to Notre Dame, but by November, Michigan State was unstoppable in the Big Ten.

“The quarterback position has taken off,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “He’s become much more experienced and proficient, and I think our supporting cast has done the exact same thing. At that time, we had no identity at tailback, wide receiver, quarterback and tight end. Now we have an identity at all those positions. That’s the difference maker.”

In the BCS system, Michigan State last season was never able to generate any buzz as a championship contender despite winning eight games in a row by comfortable margins on the way to a division title.

At this point last season, Michigan State was ranked 17th in the BCS standings. Though the Spartans finished the regular season ranked fourth, they needed an upset of then-undefeated Ohio State in the Big Ten title game just to move up from No. 10.

The 2014 Spartans, ranked eighth this week, have a better case than last year’s team or this year’s Ohio State.

Michigan State visited No. 4 Oregon, losing 46-27 in a game that remained competitive until the fourth quarter. Michigan State also defeated No. 13 Nebraska 27-22, again with a bad Spartans fourth quarter denting the final margin.

The Oregon matchup, though, will be key.

The conventional wisdom entering the season is that tougher schedules are supposed to be a factor for the selection committee. Few matchups are more challenging that a true road game to Autzen Stadium against a top-five team. 

The question is if Michigan State will be rewarded for such a game even if the Spartans didn’t win. There’s reason for skepticism. Mississippi State has wins over Auburn and LSU on the resume, but the Bulldogs’ non-conference schedule of Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama offered few tests.

And then there’s the conference championship question. The winner of this game will be the frontrunner in the Big Ten East and a likely favorite in the conference championship game.

One of the stated criteria for the selection committee is conference championships.

Yet with the Big Ten’s paltry record against the Power 5 and Notre Dame (5-11), the league may be on the outs with undefeated or one-loss champions in the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. 

But what if that doesn’t happen and the committee has to pick between a one-loss Big Ten champion over a one-loss SEC West runner-up?

The selection committee has met to issue rankings twice so far this season only to give us as many questions as answers.

The result of the matchup in East Lansing has enough baggage to keep the questions coming.