Big Ten

Big Ten Championship Game preview: 10 things to know about Hawkeyes-Spartans

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Big Ten Championship Game preview: 10 things to know about Hawkeyes-Spartans

The undefeated Iowa Hawkeyes and the one-loss Michigan State Spartans meet in the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday night in Indianapolis.

Two seasons are on the line, and there's a lot going into this game on both sidelines.

Because it's the Big Ten title game, here are 10 big things to know about this weekend's tilt, airing at 7 p.m. on Fox.

1. The stakes are high

This one's pretty obvious.

With the kinds of seasons these two teams have had, they have placed themselves firmly in contention for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

With the Hawkeyes ranked fourth and the Spartans ranked fifth in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, there's virtually no scenario in which the winner of Saturday night's game would be left out of the sport's final four.

If Iowa wins, it'll be one of at most two undefeated conference champions. If Michigan State wins, it will have far and away the best collection of wins — four over top-16 teams — as well as a conference championship. No way there are four resumes out there better than either of those.

Thing is, as good a season as the loser would have put together, it's almost certain that the loser of this game will miss the Playoff.

Win and you're in. Lose and you're not.

[MORE BIG TEN: What a turnaround it's been for 'New Kirk' and the Hawkeyes]

2. Aaron Burbridge vs. Desmond King

Two of the best players in the conference will be competing head-to-head Saturday night.

Michigan State wideout Aaron Burbridge was named the Big Ten Receiver of the Year earlier this week. He leads the conference with 75 receptions and 1,158 receiving yards. He has seven touchdown catches this season and can do things like this:

But Burbridge will have a tough test going up against Iowa cornerback Desmond King, who was named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year earlier this week. He leads the nation with eight interceptions and ranks third in the conference with 19 passes defended.

“Yeah, he leads the Big Ten in interceptions, and he's a good player," Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said. "Looking at him, he's got some good size, he's got speed, everything you want in a cornerback. If there is anything that I would compare him to from guys that we've played, I think he's like (Will) Likely from Maryland, but he's just bigger. Likely is kind of smaller, has the speed, can break on balls, can break on practices, can break it up, you know, anytime he really wants to, and I see that in King, but King just has the size. Likely is 5-8 or 5-9, King is around 6-1, 6-2, so he's a relatively bigger corner. We have great receivers, so we are looking forward to the match-up, and I would say for sure looking at their defense, Iowa's defense, I think their secondary is for sure their strong point, their strong suit.”

It's going to be a terrific one-on-one matchup. If King gets the better of Burbridge, it could throw the Spartans' offense out of whack without a safety valve for Cook. If Burbridge gets the better of King, it could mean a lot of points in a hurry for Michigan State.

[MORE BIG TEN: With Big Ten title game win, Spartans could reach peak of the mountain]

3. Iowa's three-headed running back monster

Michigan State's defense will have its hands full trying to stop not one, not two but three Iowa running backs, any of whom could go off at any minute — and have this season.

Jordan Canzeri leads the way with 964 rush yards and 12 touchdowns on 176 carries this season. He has had five 100-yard games, including a 256-yard day against Illinois and a four-touchdown afternoon against North Texas.

LeShun Daniels has gained 592 and scored eight touchdowns on 127 carries. He has had a pair of 100-yard games, including a 195-yard, three-touchdown performance against Minnesota.

And Akrum Wadley has piled up 449 yards and scored seven touchdowns on just 69 carries. He's twice gone over 100 yards, including a mammoth 204-yard, four-touchdown outing against Northwestern.

Which of these guys will get the majority of the carries is unknown. Kirk Ferentz tends to go with the hot hand. But certainly all three are capable of big performances.

Iowa is the Big Ten's third-best rushing team, averaging 203.7 rush yards a game. Michigan State boasts the league's fifth-best rushing defense, allowing 118.2 rush yards per game. And the Spartans showed they can slow down the best, holding Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott to 33 yards just two weeks ago.

[MORE BIG TEN: What Terps get in new head coach D.J. Durkin]

4. Another big moment for Connor Cook

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook is no stranger to big games.

In 2013, he led the Spartans to a Big Ten Championship Game win over Ohio State and a Rose Bowl win over Stanford. Last season, he led a Cotton Bowl win over Baylor. Back on the big stage is where Cook fares best, and Michigan State's all-time winningest quarterback has a couple more shots at shining when the lights are brightest, starting with Saturday night.

Cook was the conference's best quarterback this season — and he has the Big Ten Quarterback of the Year award to prove it — throwing for 2,730 yards and 24 touchdowns, pitching just four interceptions.

His health has been a question in recent weeks, and he sat out of Michigan State's big win over Ohio State with a shoulder injury. But he returned in expert fashion last weekend, carving up Penn State for 248 yards and three touchdowns.

Iowa's defense has been good at keeping opponents off the scoreboard and stopping the run, but they're more vulnerable against the pass, perhaps surprising because that secondary boasts Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Desmond King. But Cook, who's gone over 300 passing yards in four games this season, could exploit a Hawkeye defense that ranks just eighth in the conference, allowing 221.7 pass yards a game.

[MORE BIG TEN: Report: Rutgers looking at Buckeyes DC Chris Ash for head-coaching gig]

5. How big are C.J. Beathard's shoulders?

Iowa's offensive strength has been its running game, and with a cadre of talented backs, the Hawkeyes could again find success on the ground Saturday.

But Michigan State has been better at stopping the run than it's been at stopping the pass. If a talented Spartan front manages to slow down the Hawkeye rushing attack, can quarterback C.J. Beathard shoulder the load?

There's no doubt Beathard's been great this season. He's thrown for 2,354 yards and 14 touchdowns, throwing just three interceptions. But thanks to the balance in the Iowa offense, he hasn't had to win games on his own, like Cook has.

If the Hawkeyes can keep things balanced in successful fashion, then that's great for them. But if the game leans toward a more pass-heavy necessity, it'll be interesting to see if Beathard can take the game over.

Making that more possible will be that aforementioned Spartan secondary, which has allowed 231 pass yards a game this season.

[MORE BIG TEN: Hawkeyes, Spartans, Buckeyes go 4, 5, 6 in College Football Playoff rankings]

6. Getting to the quarterbacks

Both Iowa and Michigan State boast some of the best pass-rushers in the Big Ten.

Hawkeyes defensive end Nate Meier is tied for 10th in the conference with 6.5 sacks, while Spartans defensive end Shilique Calhoun ranks sixth with 8.5 sacks and defensive tackle Malik McDowell ranks 19th with 4.5 sacks.

Any one of those guys can cause problems for Cook and Beathard, but who will do the most damage?

The Spartans have the edge with multiple guys who can wreak havoc in the backfield. Calhoun and McDowell both show up on the top-20 list in the Big Ten when it comes to tackles for loss, too. Plus, those guys are freakish athletes. Calhoun has been terrorizing opposing QBs for three years now and has scored several defensive touchdowns in his career. McDowell got into the end zone on an interception return last week against Penn State. So big plays are the norm for the Michigan State front.

Don't discount Meier, who's a sack monster and is backed by some pretty talented linebackers. But the Iowa defensive line is down Drew Ott, another sack master who went down with an injury earlier this year. The Hawkeyes miss him, too, ranking just 12th in the conference when it comes to sacks.

[MORE BIG TEN: Buckeyes' Ezekiel Elliott named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year]

7. Michigan State's reliable runners

Spartan running backs Gerald Holmes and LJ Scott aren't on the top of any rushing leaderboards, but the duo has been reliable this season.

They particularly stepped up in big ways with Cook sidelined during the win over Ohio State, combining to rush for 113 yards.

Holmes and Scott have combined for 18 touchdowns this season, taking the baton from Madre London, the freshman who was off to a good start before missing time and receiving limited carries of late. All in all, the three have combined for 1,568 rushing yards this season.

Holmes has been the man of late, going for 329 yards over the past four games.

Iowa has a terrific rushing defense, second in the Big Ten and sixth in the country, and while Michigan State ranks just eighth in the league in rushing offense, Holmes and Scott provide a strong complement to Cook's success through the air and the Spartans remain committed to the run.

[MORE BIG TEN: Hawkeyes' Kirk Ferentz named Big Ten Coach of the Year]

8. #CollegeKickers?

If this game is a tight one, don't necessarily expect a clutch kick to win it.

Both Michigan State's Michael Geiger and Iowa's Marshall Koehn have had their struggles this season.

Geiger is just 9-for-14 on field-goal attempts, while Koehn is 13-for-17. Geiger has missed two extra points, while Koehn has missed five.

Of course, both guys have had their huge moments. It was Geiger's kick that went through from 41 yards out as time expired to give the Spartans a win over Ohio State. And Koehn's massive 57-yard boot gave the Hawkeyes a walk-off win over Pitt earlier this season.

So they have the clutch gene in them. But they also have occasional bouts of #CollegeKickers.

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Hawkeyes gear right here]

9. Iowa's practice game

Earlier this season, Iowa faced Pitt, and the Panthers came closer than anyone else to ending the Hawkeyes' undefeated season.

But the biggest benefits of the year for Iowa could come from that game.

Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi was up until just last season the Michigan State defensive coordinator. So the Panthers provided the Hawkeyes with a sneak preview of what the Spartans are going to show defensively Saturday.

It's an even bigger deal considering the lack of recent games Iowa has played against Michigan State. The two teams haven't seen each other in conference play since 2013.

“We haven't played Michigan State in a while now, so there's a little distance there, but we got a practice game, if you will," Kirk Ferentz said earlier this week. "It's almost like in high school you've got those two scrimmages before you start playing, so at least it's not totally out of our minds. I think they're very, very similar at least from the defensive standpoint, and hopefully it'll be of some help, but then that also helps them to get some exposure to what we might be thinking.”

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Spartans gear right here]

10. Prediction time

Iowa boasts the better overall defense and the better rushing attack, while Michigan State has the better quarterback and defensive line.

It's hard to figure out what to expect, as both teams have played well all season and do different things well.

Iowa's strength of schedule has been much maligned, though the Hawkeyes dominated in their signature win over Northwestern, beating the Wildcats on the road by 30 points.

Michigan State hasn't looked great in many of its wins and has shown the capability to get lit up by opposing offenses, for example allowing nearly 400 yards of offense in the loss to Nebraska.

But the Spartans are hot, red hot. That win over Ohio State featured an incredible defensive performance, allowing just 132 total yards to the Buckeyes' star-studded offense. And that was followed by a dominating win over Penn State, a kind of domination where both offensive and defensive linemen scored touchdowns.

There's certainly something to be said for how a team is playing in the current moment. And if the defenses slow down the respective rushing attacks, then the game comes down the sport's most important position: quarterback. Michigan State has the edge there.

Kirk Ferentz said something recently about Iowa playing with house money, and it's true that the Hawkeyes have exceeded all expectations, already turning in the best season in program history. Meanwhile, Mark Dantonio's senior-laden Spartans are on a mission that started years ago of being able to compete for a national championship. With the way their playing and a third shot to reach the peak of the mountain they've been climbing for three seasons, it doesn't seem like Michigan State will let another opportunity slip away.

The pick: Michigan State

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.