EAST LANSING, Mich.—R.J. Shelton said he knew all week that Connor Cook would play Saturday, and the thing is, Shelton didn’t really know. Even Cook, Michigan State’s star senior quarterback, didn’t know until Thursday, and he wasn’t 100% sure until Saturday. But Shelton believed, and sometimes belief is more powerful than knowledge.
Michigan State is 11–1 and heading to the Big Ten title game, which is basically a College Football Playoff quarterfinal, to face unbeaten Iowa. The Spartans may not be the best team in the country, but when they take the field, they think they are. Remember, Ohio State was not the best team in the country for most of last season. But the Buckeyes were the best in the end, and that’s what mattered.
“We’re playing our best football down the stretch,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said after his team dominated Penn State, 55–16. “If you look at last year’s Big Ten champion, that’s what they were able to do.”
If you watched Big Ten football on Saturday, you know the league’s dark days are gone. Urban Meyer’s defending champs at Ohio State crushed Jim Harbaugh’s rising Michigan program 42–13, yet the Buckeyes won’t even make the conference title game. Michigan State won the Big Ten's East Division, the first in a series of lofty goals this season, and the Spartans have known since January: If they won their division, they would have a shot at the playoff.
Just three years ago, a weaker Buckeyes team went undefeated in a much weaker Big Ten. Ohio State was ineligible for the Big Ten title game that year; Wisconsin, which would finish 8–6, blew out Nebraska 70–31 in Indianapolis.
This year, the Big Ten champion will make the four-team playoff. And best of all: Nobody can sensibly argue that point.
When Dantonio was asked if his team was playing for a spot in the playoff, he said simply, “I would think.” He didn’t have to say anything else.
People will argue about this, because it’s college football and America and that’s what we do. But this is pretty simple. Michigan State has one loss—at Nebraska, 39–38 on Nov. 7, on a blown call. The Spartans won at Ohio State and won at Michigan. They beat Oregon, which has since improved to 9–3.
And if Iowa wins next week, the Hawkeyes will be 13–0 with a win over Michigan State. And that should be that.
Both teams should thank Ohio State today. When the Buckeyes beat Alabama and Oregon last winter to win the national championship, they changed the perception of their league. Before, people groaned that Big Ten football was full of fat, slow, exceedingly polite people with bad haircuts and ugly sweaters who didn’t belong in the national title conversation.
In that world, people would be livid about a Michigan State-Iowa play-in game. They would rant and rave about Iowa’s weak schedule and say that Michigan State is not in Alabama’s league. Never mind Michigan State’s Rose Bowl win over Stanford following the 2013 season or Cotton Bowl win over Baylor after the ’14 campaign. The narrative would ignore those.
Thanks to that national title and a bunch of returning stars, Ohio State entered this season as the overwhelming favorite to repeat. Michigan State got all the credibility it needed by winning in Columbus last weekend. Iowa would get all the credibility it needs if it beats Michigan State in Indianapolis.
The Big Ten has earned its place, and Michigan State looks primed to take advantage of it. We’re still not totally sure Cook’s shoulder is healthy—he didn’t throw many deep balls against Penn State, and we don’t know if he can take a hit since Penn State never hit him. But if he is, he's one of the best quarterbacks in the country, with enough pieces around him to win the national title.
Like Ohio State last year, Michigan State did not look like a champion for most of September and October. Maybe all of the team’s injuries provided a convenient excuse. Maybe the Spartans have won so much in recent years that they assumed they would win. They flirted with losing several times, and were one play away from losing to Michigan. When they finally lost at Nebraska, it was not surprising.
Yes, the Spartans got hosed on Nebraska’s last touchdown—Cornhuskers receiver Brandon Reilly was clearly out of bounds before he ran back onto the field and caught the decisive 30-yard pass. But Michigan State’s defense did not deserve to win that game. In the locker room afterward, Spartans star defensive end Shilique Calhoun told a coach the loss would be the best thing to happen to the Spartans. He was right.
“Everybody’s attitude changed,” Michigan State sophomore safety Montae Nicholson said. “We all felt like we needed that loss. We’d been playing with fire all season. It finally came back around. After that we finally switched or mindset to: We have to be dominant, in all aspects of the game, every game, every down, every play.”
Cook called losing “the worst feeling in the entire world.” It isn’t, but he believes it is. And that only helps Michigan State.
Michigan State dominated Ohio State’s offense last week, and then dominated Penn State Saturday in the Big Ten game that mattered most. Dantonio was asked if he took joy in turning Ohio State-Michigan into the undercard. Dantonio often takes that bait—he’ll play the disrespect card, or he’ll tweak Michigan—but on this day he admitted he sometimes goes off “on tangents” but really he just focuses on his own program. That’s good. His own program is good enough: good enough for him, good enough to win the Big Ten East, and maybe even good enough to win the national championship.