EAST LANSING, Mich. — We’re just two weeks into the college football season, but perhaps it’s not too outlandish to make this statement.
Michigan State is going to the College Football Playoff.
Sure, it’s just a bit of post-victory hyperbole. But truly, Saturday night’s 31-28 win over visiting Oregon did a whole lot of good for Michigan State’s playoff resume. Even those “one game at a time” guys knew how much this game meant. When the College Football Playoff selection committee gets together over the next few months, this will be the game they talk about.
Two top-10 teams collided, and the Spartans emerged victorious. That’s going to mean a lot.
“In my mind, it’s a stepping-stone game,” head coach Mark Dantonio said after the game. “This is the game that pays dividends at the end of the season. This is the game that promotes this brand and this program.
“I think they all count one, I really do. But maybe for 24 hours this one’s a little bit bigger. And then maybe at the end of the season, this pays dividends and moves you forward, you know when people think and talk about strength of schedule and things of that nature. But it doesn’t do you any good if you’re not winning and play well after the fact, either.”
Good point, coach. The only way the win over Oregon remains relevant is if Michigan State keeps piling up the wins, keeps itself near the top of the rankings and keeps itself in the playoff conversation.
The thing is, the schedule ahead of these Spartans makes it seem like all that will be a very strong possibility. The next four games come against Air Force, Central Michigan, Purdue and Rutgers. After an in-state tussle with Michigan, it’s Indiana, Nebraska and Maryland before the game of the year in the Big Ten: the Nov. 21 showdown against No. 1 Ohio State. Then the season-finale against Penn State.
But of those games, the Spartans will be favored in all but one. And even if Michigan State falls in Columbus, that’s a potential 11-1 finish, with the only loss coming against the country’s top team — assuming the Buckeyes do what everyone suspects and finishes undefeated — and a win over a top-10 team, to boot.
Beat that resume.
But aside from the months-off actuality of a finalized playoff field, what Saturday’s win impacted, too, was Michigan State’s perception. The nation watched Sparty take down the Ducks. And if they weren’t watching that Rose Bowl win over Stanford two years ago — which was preceded by a Big Ten title game win over Ohio State — or that Cotton Bowl win over Baylor last year, they now know: Michigan State is one of the nation’s premier college football programs, and it deserves to be treated like it.
[MORE BIG TEN: Three TDs for Ezekiel Elliott in Buckeyes' shutout of Hawaii]
“It’s so good for the school, so good for the program, recruiting all that stuff,” quarterback Connor Cook said. “I’d say a win over Oregon at home, the home opener with (ESPN) Gameday here so early in the season, it feels like back in 2013 when we won the Rose Bowl, we won the Big Ten Championship Game. So I’d rank it right up there with those games.”
“I know when I was growing up and I was a State fan, if a team like Oregon came in here, I wouldn’t expect Michigan State to win,” linebacker Riley Bullough said. “Nowadays, the last few years, with the coaches we have and the players we have, we expect to win games. That’s why we’re brought here, and that’s why we play for Michigan State. So each game, we expect to win.”
Baylor head coach Art Briles suggested that his program’s lack of “name” status compared to Ohio State, Oregon, Florida State and Alabama kept the Bears out of last year’s playoff field. After Saturday night, it would seem that won’t be something Dantonio has to worry about this year.
But as big as Saturday night was, there is still so much left to be achieved for this Michigan State team. The Spartans have talked about the chip on their shoulder that came with not reaching the ultimate pinnacle of winning a national championship. While they’re happy that Saturday’s win will mean a lot in moving them toward that goal, they know there’s more to do, too.
Two games in, Michigan State looks like College Football Playoff material. But there are 10 regular-season games left to be played.
“I like how we’ve started fast this year,” defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. “We’ve started a lot faster than we have in years prior. It just shows that we’re going in the right direction, we’re doing it at the right pace. Now it’s time to clean up things, there’s a lot of things we still need to clean up. But once we get it all together, it’s like that train, it just keeps going. It was slow at first, but once we get it all together, it’s going to be unstoppable.”
“We didn't play as well last week as we did today. We need to continue to get better. Played against a very high-quality team this week, not that we didn't last week. Just saying we took a step forward,” Dantonio said. “And we look to play our best football in November. I think that's what we've always tried to do. I think that's what wins championships for you, will put you in those opportunities. But we need to continue to progressively just play, and there's some great football teams left that we have to play, there's no question. We have got 10 games left.”