There are two major storylines for Saturday's Big Ten championship.
One, of course, is whether Ohio State can clinch a spot in the national title game. The Buckeyes have not lost since November 2011, back when Urban Meyer worked for ESPN, Johnny Manziel was a nobody and Jameis Winston had not yet decided where to attend college. Still, many people wonder if Ohio State is really that great, or if it's just beaten a lot of mediocre teams. Now the Buckeyes can grab a spot in the title game, likely shutting out the Southeastern Conference, which has won seven straight national championships. That would cause the southeastern quadrant of the United States to scream and writhe and call the whole system a fraud, and somebody would probably try (and fail) to get Congress involved, and ... well, anyway, enough of that.
The other story is more interesting.
The other story is Michigan State's story, and it comes from the heart of the sport.
There are two ways to look at college football. One way, which has become increasingly popular over the last 20 years, is that the season is one long, complex tournament to determine the national champion. In this view, Ohio State will either win this weekend or get eliminated, just as Alabama probably was eliminated last week, and that is what matters.
There is some logic to that. It's how we view pro sports, and it is how Americans like to view American games, as big competitions to see who is the best. The problem is that it ignores the words of Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, who stood behind a podium at Spartan Stadium this week and said, "Definitely, it's the most important week of my life since I've been alive."
What? How can it be THAT important? The Spartans do not have any real chance at the national title. Oh, sure, coach Mark Dantonio threw out a "Why not us?" argument if his team beats Ohio State, and Duke beats Florida State, and, I don't know, Missouri beats Auburn in an awful 6-3 game and Nick Saban leaves for Texas and takes half his team with him or something. But this was half-hearted lobbying; it isn't realistic, and more importantly, it isn't even prominent in Dantonio's mind. As he said this week, his goals for the season were, in order:
1. Make the Big Ten title game.
2. Win that game, earning a Rose Bowl bid.
3. Win the bowl game.
There was no talk about a national title, because that would be like dreaming you could fly to Mars and then hoping Kate Upton could join you. Dantonio's three goals are impossible-but-possible dreams for Michigan State fans.
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The Spartans have not played in a Rose Bowl since Jan. 1, 1988. Since that day, even Northwestern has gone to the Rose Bowl, and so did Purdue and Illinois and Iowa, and so did a Penn State team that hadn't even been invited to join the Big Ten in '88. Archrival Michigan has gone to eight Rose Bowls. Heck, Wisconsin -- an afterthought in the league for many years -- has gone to the Rose Bowl six times since '88.
See, this is the other way to view college football. It is more nuanced and more compelling. It's about each school as its own entity with its own fans and their own dreams, instead of a bunch of teams that we hold to the same standard, like pro franchises or teams in a video game. It's about rivalry games that can make a season and conference titles that can be savored for a generation.
In the Bowl Championship Series era, the national championship has been about mathematical formulas and false definitions: We pretend that whoever happens to be No. 1 and No. 2 at the end of a season is playing for the championship of the nation, because that's what television calls it. We even made an expensive trophy and everything.
In reality, Alabama won a national title once when it didn't even win its own division. If you extended any of the last 10 seasons by a week, or even rearranged the order of games so September losses became November losses and vice versa, you might have had different title-game matchups.
What Michigan State wants is different. It's the real, earned title of being the best in its neighborhood, even if that neighborhood keeps foolishly expanding. Maybe some day the Spartans can play for a national title -- if the four-team playoff were in effect this year, they might have had a chance. But that is not the main dream. It's not the core of the program.
Michigan State alumni are often accused of having an inferiority complex or being obsessed with Michigan. (To understand why the latter is an insult, you have to understand that in-state rivalry; Michigan fans gleefully point out that their biggest rival is Ohio State. I don't think Alabama and Auburn fans mock each other's obsession with each other as much, because they generally agree they are supposed to be obsessed with each other.) I think it's more accurate to say that Michigan State alums love their school, and they think it is a great place that often gets overlooked.
An inferiority complex is when you think you are inferior. Most Michigan State folks don't feel that way at all. They just get annoyed when others act like they are inferior, as most of us do. This feeling connects a lot of Michigan State people to their football team. Dantonio has built a Big Ten power by finding guys that Michigan and Ohio State didn't want. Cook, an Ohio native, was one of them.
"I mean, growing up in Ohio everyone wants to go to Ohio State, everyone has dreams and aspirations of going to that school," Cook said. "And if they don't recruit you, guys have that extra motivation when they play against them."
For Michigan State, this game is not just a chance to mess with the national-title picture. It is much bigger than that. You can trace a line from this game all the way back to 1988, and even farther back than that.
Linebacker Max Bullough comes from a long line of Spartans -- his grandfather played guard for Michigan State, his father played linebacker and was a team captain, his uncle Chuck was a linebacker on that last Rose Bowl team, another uncle was a running back in the early '80s, and his brother is a redshirt freshman. He said of Dantonio's three goals:
"It's what we talk about in winter conditioning, it's what we talk about in summer conditioning, in spring ball, in camp -- all those things that, in reality you don't want to do ....
"We haven't been there in a long time, so it's kind of a neat thing for us to have the opportunity to make all those things we talk about every time we put our hand up. All those signs on the wall Coach D has, to make that a tangible feeling, to be able to feel that feeling and know what it's like, to be able to say I've done it, to say we brought Michigan State back to where we think it should be, I think that just creates, like I said, a tangible goal instead of just a dream or a vision that's out in front of you all the time."
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That is what this game means to Michigan State. It's a chance to grab a carrot the Spartans have been chasing for 25 years. It's a chance to show the program is real, it matters, and it doesn't just exist to shock a top-10 team once in a while and then lose the next week.
Dantonio has done one of the best program-building jobs of anybody in the country. Michigan State has won 11 games in three of the last four years. But even that amazing run has been tinged with a lack of national respect
In 2010, the Spartans ended up in a three-way tie for the conference title. All three teams had one league loss and zero nonconference losses. Wisconsin got to go to the Rose Bowl. Ohio State got to go to the Sugar Bowl. Michigan State had to go to the Capital One Bowl, where it faced an Alabama team that was easily one of the five best in the country. (The Spartans got crushed.)
The next year, the Spartans played in the first-ever Big Ten title game, and they might have won if safety Isaiah Lewis had not run into Wisconsin's punter late in the fourth quarter. Lewis said this week that it took him a while to stop blaming himself for the loss.
Bullough said that after that game, "There were people crying I thought I'd never see cry."
The next day, the Sugar Bowl selected Michigan over Michigan State, even though the Spartans had beaten the Wolverines and had the same record.
The Rose Bowl is not what it once was. A generation of trying to arrange national title games has taken some of the shine off it. But it is still the Rose Bowl. Playing in it would still mean something to Michigan State -- something even more profound than a national title would mean to Alabama, which has won a ton of them, or for Ohio State, which won one in 2002, and expects to compete for more.
There has been talk this week that the Spartans might make the Rose Bowl even if they lose to the Buckeyes. I understand that, and Michigan State might deserve that, but it would still feel wrong. The goal has always been to win the Big Ten and go to the Rose Bowl. If Michigan State wins this game, you might just see people crying that you never thought you'd see cry.