The college football world took a much anticipated trip to the great state of Michigan last weekend. ESPN decided to broadcast SportsCenter live from Ann Arbor for Jim Harbaugh’s home coaching debut at his alma mater. Since Harbaugh took the job this past winter, much of the attention in college football has been focused towards Michigan as they try to revitalize one of the most glorified programs in the history of college football. While most believe Harbaugh is the perfect coach to get the job done in Ann Arbor, Michigan no longer has the fortune of only having to look South to find their big competition. There is a potential bigger threat some 60 miles Northwest—yes the once thought “Little Brother” has grown up in East Lansing, and he goes by the name Sparty.
Following the SportsCenter broadcast last Saturday, ESPN’s College Gameday kicked off its show live from East Lansing, as Michigan State vs Oregon was the featured game of the week. Part two in a scheduled home-and-home series between these two teams was again expected to have College Football Playoff implications and both teams are expected to compete for a championship in their respective conferences. Last year in Eugene, Michigan State surprised many by hanging with, and in fact leading, Oregon through three quarters of the game. That was before eventual Heisman trophy winner Marcus Mariota and the high powered Duck offense began to dominate a tired Michigan State defense on their way to a 19-point victory.
Oregon would go on to lose in the NCAA Championship game vs Ohio State, while Michigan State would end their season with a Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor in one of the greatest games of the 2014 season. Heading into the 2014 season, Spartans coach, Mark Dantonio, certainly had his eyes on the inaugural playoff, and while there was no doubt some disappointment when they didn’t make it, it was far from a failed season. Especially when you consider that the only two losses the Spartans had were against the two teams competing for the National Championship.
The bar has been raised in East Lansing significantly. Under Dantonio, Michigan State has won eleven or more games in four of the past five years. They have dominated the in-state rivalry against Michigan, winning six of the last seven. They’ve also appeared in two conference championship games (winning one), and have turned what used to be known as a “basketball school” into a strong, well-rounded athletic program.
Heading into this season, Michigan State came in ranked 5th in the nation, and again have their eyes on the playoff and some higher expectations, but first focused on some familiar faces that stand in their way. Having both Oregon and Ohio State on the schedule again, Michigan State knew a win against at least one of those opponents would be necessary if their dreams would eventually come to fruition. On Saturday, the Spartans helped their playoff chances by beating the Ducks and bumping themselves up one spot, to #4 in the polls. I think if Michigan State were to have finished the season 11-1 last season, they would have made the College Football Playoff, and that if they finish with that record this year, they will make the playoff.
Outside of Ohio State, there doesn’t seem to be any clear-cut favorite or obvious choices to win any of the Power 5 conferences like in past years. For that reason, I don’t expect many teams to finish undefeated, if any. In recent years, Alabama, Florida State, and Oregon all seemed like shoe-ins for their conference. This year, all three may not even get to their conference championship games because there seems to be a lot more parity, and I think it’s a good thing. I think Ohio State goes undefeated, and potentially a team like TCU or Baylor could as well, (they play each other at the end of November) but that could be it.
Ohio State is the only remaining ranked team the Spartans have to play as of right now. The Spartans do still have a couple potential trap games in Ann Arbor and at Nebraska but Michigan State should be undefeated (10-0) heading into Columbus on November 21st. Provided Michigan State can keep that game reasonably close, say within a couple of touchdowns, the “little brother” from East Lansing could be punching a ticket to the Playoff for the first time. With Oregon already out of the way, I think Michigan State needs to be playing in college football’s Final Four on New Year’s Day.
The past few years, Dantonio and company haven’t gotten the attention and respect they probably deserve up in East Lansing. Often taking the backseat to Ohio State and hated rival Michigan, the Spartans always seem to fly a little bit under the radar but Dantonio pushes on, getting them closer to the pinnacle, slightly raising the bar each year while ensuring that the brand is strong. Conference champions, they’ve been there and done that. A Rose Bowl victory, been there too. New Year’s Six? Yup, did that last year. There’s one big step left, and the Spartans control their own destiny the rest of the way. It’s a funny thing about expectations, when you have them, it means your team is pretty good, but when you exceed them, it means you’ve done something great. The College Football Playoff, it’s all Michigan State has left, everything else Spartan fans have already seen.