In what turned out to be a highly entertaining, epic defensive battle, the Michigan State Spartans held off the Iowa Hawkeye’s 16-13 in the Big Ten championship game to advance into the College Football Playoff. There is no question that it was a well-earned, hard-fought victory and the Spartans deserve a chance to potentially play for a national title, but drew the Alabama Crimson Tide as its opponent in the Cotton Bowl.
(Truth be told, I wanted Iowa to win simply because it would’ve provided another piece of evidence that the Big Ten is better and deeper than it has been getting credit for the past several years. Everyone predicted that the winner would come from the Big Ten East this season and if the Big Ten West had produced a conference champion, then people might take the Big Ten even more seriously.)
Up until this point in this season, no one has been able to stop the offensive running game of Alabama or solve the puzzle the defense constructs every game. Sure, Ole Miss was able to defeat Alabama but the Crimson Tide still accumulated over 500 yards in that game and uncharacteristically turned the ball over five times. It was more of an anomaly than anything else and is something very rare to see from a disciplined Nick Saban team.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, since losing to Ole Miss in October, Alabama has led the nation in fewest points allowed per game and yards allowed per game. Alabama has 46 sacks, most in the nation, has held nine opponents under 300 yards, rank No. 2 in the nation in total defense (258.2 yards per game) and is No. 1 in rushing defense (74.0 yards per game).
However, as daunting and improbable as it may seem, I believe the Spartans give the conference a chance at the title.
Just look at the numbers.
Ever since Alabama trounced Michigan State 49-7 in the 2011 Capital One Bowl, the Spartans have garnered four consecutive bowl wins, back-to-back top five finishes, and won 38 of their past 42 games including seven of their past eight games against top 10 teams, beating Iowa and the same Ohio State squad that eliminated the Tide from last year’s College Football Playoff.
They have defeated nearly everyone in their path with one blemish on their record due to a controversial call and have overcome adversity and injuries to get where they are today.
Also, the Spartans have Connor Cook, who has proven, at least to me, he is a legitimate, reliable anchor for this team as he was selected as a first-team All-Big Ten QB. They also have the Big Ten Receiver of the Year in Aaron Burbridge, depth on the offensive line and four tailbacks with great potential. On the other side of the ball, they possess one of the best defensive lines in the programs history, athletic linebackers and an ever-improving secondary, though they do allow 230 passing yards per game.
So you’re thinking they are going to beat Alabama?
Woah. Slow down there.
I think there’s a chance they can defeat the Crimson Tide, but a lot of things need to go right. It starts up front in the trenches. Derrick Henry has had a monster year, rushing for an unprecedented 1,986 yards in the SEC and a nation-leading 23 touchdowns.
The front seven, which is allowing just 3.6 yards per carry, is the heart and soul of this team. Preventing Henry from breaking away for a big gain will be their biggest hurdle this season, but if they can contain him, they’ll give their team a good chance.
Next, they’ll need Cook at full strength and for him to stretch the field versus the Tide’s stout defense by getting the ball into Burbridge’s hands, something they struggled to do against Iowa, and by moving the chains for first downs as Alabama leads the nation in forcing three-and-outs since its loss to Ole Miss.
And finally, Michigan State has to be free of mistakes on offense and special teams. In what should be a low-scoring game, one big score could be the difference in this game and kicker Michael Geiger needs to be on point for Michigan State.
If all these things happen, then the Spartans no question have a legitimate shot and in college football, just a little can be the difference as strange things do occur. Of course, Michigan State is all too familiar with this as they beat Michigan in the most bizarre fashion in the closing seconds.
Anyways, the importance of this game can’t be overstated.
The Big Ten is arguably the country’s best conference this season and if the Spartans can knock off yet another SEC flagship program, it would be difficult to argue otherwise. This game is crucial and with millions watching, could greatly enhance the Big Ten’s reputation. This year’s game is the ultimate measuring stick for how far the entire Big Ten has come to closing the gap with the South.
Now, the optimistic Big Ten fan gives me hope as it screams that anything can happen but the rational college football fan inside of me screams don’t be stupid, no one can beat the red hot Crimson Tide especially not the Spartans who lack that it factor that Alabama seems to possess.
However, being doubted and overlooked is nothing new to the Spartans. They relish the role of being David and Michigan State has won nine of the last 13 games in which it has been an underdog. The last time they were underdogs was against Ohio State and we all know what happened then. They walked out with a 17-14 victory over the defending champions.
With all that said, I do not know if the Spartans will win or not but I’m giving them a shot and sometimes that’s all you need.