Michigan State (1-0) at Oregon (1-0) Sept. 6, 6:30, FOX
Here’s The Deal: It’s extremely possible that this might be the most impressive non-conference game of the college football season, mainly because it’s extremely possible that this could be the 2015 Rose Bowl matchup as the first round of the inaugural College Football Playoff.
It’s the fifth time the two programs have met, with the last a 27-20 Michigan State win in 1999, but this time around, they’re each looking like the favorites to win their respective conference championships, especially with Ohio State having to come to East Lansing and with Oregon dealing with a favorable slate, outside of a trip to UCLA. But this is more than just a massive game between two of 2014’s superpowers – it’s a defining moment in the perception of what this season could be.
It’s not fair, and it’s actually wrong, that the national media has taken on the lazy narrative that the Big Ten might not deserve a spot in the College Football Playoff now that Braxton Miller is out for the year and the overall depth isn’t there. Wisconsin played well against LSU before injuries and a lack of a proper wide receiver proved to be a killer, but that was hardly an embarrassing loss for the league. The Big Ten and Pac-12 split – Cal winning at Northwestern and Rutgers winning at Washington State – and the rest of the two leagues were fine in the first week, but the winner of this game will carry the torch.
If Oregon wins in a blowout, then the perception will be that the Pac-12 is a worthy challenger to the SEC – right or not. If Michigan State comes away with the win, all of a sudden, it’ll be easy to assume the Big Ten isn’t that bad. Will the 13-member committee see through all the bluster and not take one game so seriously? There’s still a long way to go.
The two teams did their parts in their respective paycheck games – with Oregon beating South Dakota 62-13 and Michigan State squeaking past Jacksonville State 45-7 – so they should each be tuned up and ready to go. Is this Round 1? If so, it needs to live up to the hype.
Why Michigan State Might Win: Has Oregon really and truly fixed its issue? Is this still a soft, pretty team that’s all shiny and flashy, but can be punched in the mouth by the mean bullies? Michigan State is going to be another version of Stanford with its nasty offensive line and tough defense, and Oregon has to be ready punch back. The problem is that the Spartans are tougher on the defensive front with peerless tackling from all 11 spots and good enough discipline to be able to counterbalance the Duck speed by simply being in the right place. The Spartans should be able to generate pressure on Marcus Mariota and take him out of his comfort zone. The Oregon offensive line might be terrific, but it’s going to be under attack from the start.
Why Oregon Might Win: Shhhhhh. No one really likes to mention it, but the Michigan State run defense wasn’t that great last year against the teams that could actually run the ball. The overall stats looked fantastic, allowing just one team – Indiana – to averaged more than 2.6 yards per carry over the first nine games, but that’s partly because the Spartans played against a slew of mediocre ground games, Notre Dame’s and Iowa’s included. Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah didn’t have too much of a problem, averaging 5.6 yards a pop on the way to 123 yards. Minnesota’s Daniel Cobb hit the 100-yard mark, and Ohio State cranked out 273 yards and put up big numbers in bunches. The Spartans keyed on stopping Braxton Miller and he still ended up running for 142 yards and two scores. MSU can handle the tough running teams just fine, but throw in a speedster and there should be problems, especially with a revamped linebacking corps that’s still looking to hit its stride.
Who To Watch Out For: No one locks up the Heisman in early September, but it’s possible to lose it. Mr. Mariota, if you want to take the race by the horns, here you go. With so many insane stats and big numbers being put up on a weekly basis, it’ll be just about impossible for Mariota to win the Heisman on a purely statistical level, but he’ll be more than able to hold his own. His real worth will be against Brett Hundley and UCLA, against Kevin Hogan and Stanford, and in this game, where all that matters is winning. He was fine against South Dakota, not having to do much in the easy win, but he’s healthy, has a slightly more compact throwing motion, and he’s playing behind his strongest line yet.
Meanwhile, after coming up with wins in the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl, Michigan State’s Connor Cook has a shot to further cement himself as one of the country’s best big game quarterbacks if he can pull off the victory. If MSU wins this, that would make Cook the starting quarterback in three of the program’s biggest wins ever within the last four games. How’s this for handling pressure? 46-of-76 (over 60%) for 636 yards and five touchdowns with two picks – one horrific one in Pasadena – in the two games to end last year, and following up a scary shot to his knee, he finished last week completing 12-of-13 passes for 285 yards and three touchdowns.
What’s Going To Happen: This is when Oregon shows the world it means business. Michigan State will power its way to a good showing, but the Ducks will hold up against the pressure and will look just a half-step faster in all phases. This will be the game that puts the Ducks in the driver’s seat for a spot in the top four with Mariota looking razor-sharp in the second half.
Prediction: Oregon 27 … Michigan State 23
Line: Oregon -13 o/u: 56
Must Watch Factor: (5: Hacked and Leaked Photos of Kate Upton – 1: Hacked and Leaked Photos of Kate Upton and Justin Verlander) … 5
Michigan State (1-0) at Oregon (1-0) Sept. 6, 6:30, FOX