EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State plays Oregon this Saturday in a matchup of top-10 teams, and, in a way, the Big Ten championship is at stake. Not the championship itself. But the value of it. If Michigan State gets crushed in Eugene, what is the Big Ten title worth, anyway?
The Heisman Trophy is also at stake, because if Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota stumbles and loses this game, he probably can’t win the trophy. The run for the Heisman tends to be a single-elimination tournament.
Also, this game might just have an enormous effect on the national championship.
So, what do you think? Big game? Or no?
College football continues to evolve, and the biggest sign this year is the College Football Playoff. But the sport still retains some charming quirks, and this is one of them: A Week 2 game can be so much more than one game, and so much more than an early-season game in any other sport. Oregon-Michigan State feels like a classic September duel of the past, like Miami-Florida State or Michigan-Notre Dame, but the cool thing is it isn’t.
“This has been a progression for us, I think,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said this week. “You have an opportunity to play across the nation, and it has a prominence or prestige to it."
Some programs made that progression a century ago. But Michigan State and Oregon are still relatively new actors on this kind of stage.
The biggest college matchups are riveting in ways that the best NFL games aren’t, because the teams bring so much more to the opening kickoff than just players. College teams are connected to philosophies, traditions, fight songs and reputations. I hear some are even connected to actual universities.
Michigan State and Oregon are unlikely top-10 teams, outsiders who toppled insiders in their own conference to rise this high. This isn’t Boise State or UCF trying to bust in from outside the establishment. Michigan State and Oregon rose from the middle of the power leagues to the top.
The paths were similar, but the methods were completely different. Oregon, of course, epitomizes the modern excess of college football. The Ducks have been wildly innovative in almost every way, from their offensive scheme to their flashy uniforms. Chip Kelly’s much-stated philosophy that he won’t do something just because it has always been done still resonates throughout the program. That’s how Oregon became a national power.
Michigan State has also been a marketing phenomenon on a smaller scale, thanks largely to athletic director Mark Hollis. But the football team went back in time for its recipe, winning with defense, toughness, players who were overlooked as recruits and a patient, disciplined offense.
Dantonio made it a point this week to call his defense “cutting-edge,” perhaps because he wanted to point out that Oregon isn’t the only team in this game with smart coaches. And the Michigan State schemes and nuances are certainly cutting-edge. But the philosophy is out of the same mold as most of the great programs in the past. No coach in college football brings a team together, to maximize its talent and collective attitude, better than Dantonio does.
For years Michigan State was so shaky you wouldn’t let a Spartan hold your drink. Now, suddenly, the reputation of the Big Ten is in Michigan State’s hands -- and, incredibly, that’s exactly where the Big Ten should want it.
Oregon is a deserving favorite in this game, but if any Big Ten team can go on the road and take down a top-10 opponent, it’s Michigan State. I don’t understand why some people think that Ohio State is the Big Ten’s best team. The Buckeyes lost many of their best players from last year’s team, which wasn’t as good as Michigan State anyway, and with quarterback Braxton Miller out for the season with a shoulder injury, the gap seems significant. Urban Meyer is a wonderful coach, and Ohio State may be very good. But if you erase the last 50 years of history and look at the teams as currently constructed, how can you pick Ohio State ahead of Michigan State?
The Big Ten needs a Michigan State win in a most desperate way. The league fell way behind the SEC in recent years, as you may have heard if you happened to walk within 500 feet of an SEC fan. If Michigan State loses, the Big Ten will have lost its last meaningful chance to impress the country until bowl season.
The conference must wonder: If not now, when? Michigan State hosts Oregon next year, and the Spartans will probably have a better shot in that one, because they will be home and Mariota will presumably be in the NFL. But who knows how highly regarded the Ducks will be next season?
Wisconsin plays Alabama in Dallas next year, and a Badgers win would be huge, but also unlikely. Ohio State is scheduled to play North Carolina, Northern Illinois and Virginia Tech. (The Buckeyes’ fourth nonconference date is open.) Michigan plays Utah, Oregon State, UNLV and BYU. Nebraska plays at Miami, which would be more meaningful if the Cornhuskers bring a time machine.
So, if not now, probably not next year, but maybe the year after ... oh, the heck with that, how about now? The Big Ten has earned its reputation over the last few years. Only the Big Ten can change it.