Is this how Michigan State’s quest for a berth in the College Football Playoff ends?
Are hopes officially dashed and chances zeroed out because of a last-minute upset Saturday night in Lincoln?
Not really, no.
It’s easy to look at the 39-38 defeat against Nebraska and write the Spartans’ obituary. But the truth is that they still control their own destiny in the Big Ten and that Nov. 21’s big-time showdown with Ohio State is still just as meaningful as it was before.
It won’t be a matchup of two undefeated teams, a potential play-in game of sorts for the College Football Playoff. But it will still be a game that determines who wins the Big Ten East because if Michigan State wins — and takes care of business against Maryland and Penn State — the Spartans are going to the Big Ten title game. They’ll hold the head-to-head tiebreakers over both Michigan and Ohio State, rendering the outcome of The Game meaningless.
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Now, taking care of business is a much bigger “if” than it was 24 hours ago and not something that really should be taken for granted. Taking care of business is exactly what Michigan State was supposed to do on Saturday night against Nebraska. The Spartans were big favorites considering the Huskers already had six losses and lost the week prior in embarrassing fashion, allowing 55 points to conference doormat Purdue.
But the Big Ten East race hasn’t been impacted as dramatically as the outcome Saturday made it seem. The Spartans still can play in the Big Ten title game, and it means they can still make the College Football Playoff as a one-loss conference champion. What it did was eliminate the possibility of a three-way tie between three one-loss teams. Michigan State can only finish with one loss if it beats Ohio State, and if the Buckeyes and Wolverines meet as two one-loss teams, one of them will have two losses by the end of the day. There can still be a three-way tie, sure, but it would involve more unexpected losses to lesser teams.
Saturday's loss means the Spartans also can't simply win out and be in the College Football Playoff. The selection committee will need to give them a hand, as will a bunch of other teams around the country that haven't lost yet or have lost just once to a quality opponent. It means there are resumes to compare. A ticket can no longer simply be punched thanks to an undefeated finish.
It also means the margin for error is now zero.
One loss does not eliminate a team from playoff contention. Ohio State and Alabama both made last year’s field of four with a loss to their names, and this season’s inaugural rankings had a one-loss Alabama team ranked ahead of several undefeated teams from Power 5 conferences, including Michigan State.
But two losses probably does eliminate a team from playoff contention.
The most important thing is a conference championship, and the good news for the Spartans is that that is still on the table.
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It will take work, though, and that means tightening up a defense that while plagued by injuries this season has not played up to the standards Michigan State set in back-to-back seasons that ended in big-time bowl victories. These last two seasons, ending in wins in the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl, have been the highlights of the Mark Dantonio Era, and they’ve been trademarked by stellar defensive play.
That hasn’t necessarily been the case this season. With former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi now the head coach at Pitt, perhaps more than a little has been lost. The Spartans ranked ninth in the Big Ten in total defense coming into Saturday, allowing an average of 356.5 yards per game. That number will rise after a poor defensive showing Saturday, when the Huskers gained 499 total yards. Three hundred twenty of those came through air, and the Michigan State secondary that used to call itself the “No Fly Zone” is now mediocre at best, though also affected by injuries, currently ranking 90th in the country.
Connor Cook has played stellar this season, probably better than any quarterback in the Big Ten. He added 337 more passing yards and four more touchdown passes to his totals Saturday, moving ahead of Kirk Cousins for the most TD tosses in Michigan State history. His wide receivers have played well, the offensive line is finally healthy and the running backs have shown they’re capable.
The Spartans do still control their own destiny following Saturday’s loss, but they have to win every game they play from here on out. That means being better than they were Saturday and better than they've been much of the season.