Big Ten

Though Playoff awaits, Spartans can count mission at least partly accomplished

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Though Playoff awaits, Spartans can count mission at least partly accomplished

INDIANAPOLIS — All year long they’ve talked about goals.

The Michigan State Spartans weren’t happy with last season, even if most teams would’ve been. A year after winning a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl championship, a second-place finish in the Big Ten East Division and a win in the Cotton Bowl would have to do.

They didn’t like that. Not one bit.

So this year, the goal was clear. Avoid the feeling of not playing for a conference title. Avoid the feeling of being left out of the College Football Playoff. Avoid the feeling of not playing for a national championship.

The Spartans knocked off the undefeated Iowa Hawkeyes, 16-13, in Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium. And while Michigan State’s checklist isn’t done yet, not with games still to be played, at least consider the first few parts of this mission accomplished.

“It’s special to have this opportunity to be Big Ten champions,” defensive end Shilique Calhoun said after Saturday night’s win. “First to be East Division champions, it’s special, and then to be a Big Ten champion, it’s amazing. It’s the reason why you come to a Big Ten school, to have the opportunity to play in this game, let alone win it. It’s amazing, I’m pretty sure my teammates are all smiles today. I look forward to a great Sunday because that’s when we’ll really realize that we won it all.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Colossal late-game TD drive gives Spartans win over Hawkeyes in Big Ten Championship Game]

After three quarters and five field goals, it looked like it was going to be a ho-hum night. After Iowa kicked off the fourth quarter with an 85-yard touchdown pass, it looked like that might be enough to keep the Spartans down.

But anyone who believed Michigan State dead after going down by just four points with plenty of time left on the clock obviously hasn’t watched many Spartan games this season.

This is the same team that pulled out its two signature regular-season wins in the most clutch of fashions. This is the team that took a fumbled punt back for a walk-off touchdown at the Big House. This is the team that kicked a walk-off field goal to beat Ohio State.

And now this is the team that went on a 22-play, 82-yard, nine-minute drive to soak up almost all the time remaining in the Big Ten title game, getting a go-ahead touchdown on an LJ Scott stretch with 27 seconds left to play.

Just another day at the office for these Spartans.

“We’re a tough unit, and throughout this whole year, nothing has been easy for us and we’ve had to push through in those last minutes. We’ve done that all year,” center Jack Allen said. “And there were haters at times when they were saying, ‘Why can’t these guys get it together?’ But we just cared about the guys in that room, and we just kept pushing for each other.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten Championship Game puts program successes of Dantonio, Ferentz on display]

With a Big Ten East Division title already in tow, the Spartans took to the postgame podium on the confetti-strewn turf and checked another box on this season’s to-do list. Head coach Mark Dantonio raised the Big Ten championship trophy, stealing a championship hat away from one of his players in the process. Hugs all around, the fight song blaring, celebrations in the locker room.

And now it’s on to the next.

“I think we’re hungry,” quarterback Connor Cook said. “We’re in the Playoff. That’s something this program’s never done, somewhere our program’s never been. Like Coach D’s motto, we’re just going to keep reaching higher.”

Michigan State has been like this for the last few years now. Dantonio has led the Spartans to at least 11 wins in five of the past six seasons, a Big Ten record. This wasn’t Michigan State’s coming-out party, this was a college football power getting the job done.

But as great a program as Dantonio has built in East Lansing, the Spartans have now reached the point they’d yet to reach under the eighth-year head coach. In the past two seasons, a conference championship was won, a Rose Bowl was won, a Cotton Bowl was won. But Michigan State hasn’t played for a national championship.

It will now.

[MORE BIG TEN: Tough quarterbacks lead Hawkeyes, Spartans into Big Ten Championship Game]

With Saturday night’s win comes a ticket to the College Football Playoff. That’s not yet official, of course, but it’s expected by so many, it’s practically fact. With the Nos. 4 and 5 teams squaring off in Indy, the Big Ten title bout was a de facto national quarterfinal. Now it’s on to the semi for the winner.

Michigan State will find out who it plays in the Playoff when the pairings are announced Sunday. But while that remains an unknown for the next few hours, what is a known is that the Spartans will be competing for a national championship.

“I tell our football team, dream big,” Dantonio said. “We have world-class athletes on our football team. They’re capable of so much, especially when they believe those things. I think, like I said before, we know how to win. There's a belief system. I've said it every single year. We have great chemistry in our football team. That's provided by our seniors. That's provided by our upperclassmen who have been here to this game before. Because of that chemistry, it creates energy, positive energy. That energy goes a long way. When you got to reach down when things aren't quite going so well for you, you got to reach down and you got to find something to grind out, to fight back in some way, we've been able to do that. Championship football teams do that. They do. They just know how to do it.”

For so long, Michigan State has had to deal with “little brother” comments and disrespect from a national media that still can’t seem to spell Mark Dantonio correctly. The Spartans weren’t in the same class as Ohio State or Michigan, they said.

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

Well now Michigan State is off to the College Football Playoff, off to compete for a national title. It was the Spartans — not the Buckeyes or Wolverines — in position to do that Saturday night, and they got the job done.

But don’t think for one second this is going to change ol’ Sparty.

Dantonio was asked during a Friday press conference if he thought getting to the sport’s ultimate level would change his team’s attitude, make them expect winning rather than act like underdogs. He said he hoped not.

Well, he doesn’t have to hope any longer.

“We still have a lot to prove. We still need to keep fighting. We’re always going to have that chip because there’s always going to be some level of disrespect where people don’t respect the Spartans. I don’t mind it. I like it,” Calhoun said. “It’s kind of natural now. It’s one of those things that we just have regardless. It could be someone making a meme of us, and it’s like, ‘There goes the chip again.’

“I think we’ll always have that chip on our shoulder because of the program that we have and because of the head coach that we have and the way that he motivates us. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another that we’ll use as a chip.”

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.