EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State beat Penn State 55–16 in a game with mammoth College Football Playoff implications. Here are three thoughts from a game that was just as dull as the Spartans hoped it would be:
1. For the second straight year, the Big Ten should place a team in the College Football Playoff
Not only that, but the Big Ten will have the most compelling game on Championship Saturday: Michigan State against undefeated Iowa, winner goes to a national semifinal.
People will argue about this because it’s college football and America and that’s what we do. But this is pretty simple: Iowa is undefeated (and No. 4 in the latest playoff rankings). Michigan State has one loss but won at Ohio State, at Michigan and vs. Oregon, and the Spartans’ lone loss came on a blown call at Nebraska. And of course, whichever team wins next week will have another big victory on its resume.
Even before the rest of the games were played Saturday, Michigan State and Iowa were in fantastic shape. Notre Dame’s best argument is that it lost to Clemson. Oklahoma lost to a bad Texas team on a neutral field. Stanford lost twice, including once to a Big Ten team, Northwestern, that lost by 30 to Iowa.
Again: You can argue these things all you want. But see, the Big Ten doesn’t have to argue back. The league can just plan on a spot in the playoff.
2. Say goodbye to three words: “Same old Spartans”
Michigan State fans know the phrase well. Whenever their team had a big win, it would collapse the following week, and everybody would say: “Same old Spartans.” This was the case for, oh, 40 years or so.
Well, Michigan State just came home after an enormous win at Ohio State, with its star quarterback uncertain to play because of a shoulder injury, and beat Penn State handily. Even more: Everybody expected Michigan State to beat Penn State handily. Mark Dantonio’s program simply does not lay eggs. This has been the case for, oh, six years now.
The Spartans can absolutely win three more games and the national championship. But to do it, they need Connor Cook to be healthy. Dantonio inserted backup Tyler O’Connor for a Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half, an indication that Cook can’t throw the deep ball like he usually does (he didn’t throw many against Penn State). Cook will be an NFL quarterback soon, and possibly a very good one. Michigan State needs him to win the national title and maybe even to beat Iowa next week.
3. This was a demoralizing loss for Penn State
The Nittany Lions fell to 7–5, but put that aside for a moment. They have three bigger problems: Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan. All three are in Penn State’s division.
How is it going to pass those three teams as long as Urban Meyer, Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh are there? It will take a couple of signature wins and some astute game-coaching. Penn State’s James Franklin is a strong recruiter and a players’ coach, but his team kept beating itself in the first half Saturday.
With a chance to go for a touchdown and a 7–6 lead on fourth-and-goal from the one in the first half, Franklin settled for a field goal. Penn State needed a touchdown there, and even if the Lions didn’t get it, they could have pinned Michigan State back on its own one for the next possession.
It will take some out-of-the-box thinking for Penn State to climb to the top of the division. The Big Ten East is going to be a beast for the next few years. Meyer and Dantonio have their programs rolling. Michigan got outclassed by Ohio State on Saturday, but we might look back on this Michigan team someday as the least talented group of Harbaugh’s tenure. Penn State has to take advantage of opportunities like it had in the first half Saturday to contend with the three powerhouses.