Sunday, November 2, 2014

Michigan State's problem

The MSU football Spartans are arguably as good as any team in the country. But they have a problem, actually a few of them, and there's not a whole heckuva lot they can do about it, except hope.

As we all know, only 4 teams will qualify for the national playoff at the end of this season.

Problem #1. MSU currently find themselves ranked #8. That means in the next month and a half or so, four teams ranked above them have to drop down in the rankings while the Spartans impress.

Problem #2. Another week has gone by and, though there were some interesting matchups (and close scores) involving the seven teams above them -- the rankings aren't likely to change much. Consider:

#1 Miss St. barely fended off Arkansas at home. The Razorbacks are 4-5 overall and 0-5 in their conference. Hardly an impressive victory -- but a win is a win.

#2 Flor St. had their hands full @ Louisville, but prevailed in the end.

#3 Auburn knocked off #4 Ole Miss @ Miss -- but barely -- 35-31. A Rebel receiver fumbled the ball on the one inch line as he was about to score what would have been the winning touchdown. But #3 knocking off #4 on the road in a close one might not do much damage to either team. Yes, Ole Miss might drop a spot or two, but likely remain above the Spartans. However, on the flip side, Ole Miss is now a 2 loss team, having lost @ LSU in another close one just last week. Should a 2 loss team from a superior conference remain ranked above a 1 loss team like MSU, arguably the best team in the (weak) Big 10? We'll see.

#4 Oregon blistered Stanford so the Ducks will remain in the Top 4. And remember, it was @ Oregon early in season when the Spartans got mauled in the fourth quarter to get handed their only defeat. That one poor quarter of play might well keep them out of the national championship hunt.

TCU, another team ranked ahead of the Spartans, barely squeaked by 31-30 @ at by-god West Virginny. But again, a win is a win, especially on the road.

And of course, Alabama lurks. They lost at Ole Miss and barely squeaked by the above mentioned Arkansas themselves.

In the next few weeks, there's going to be a bloodbath in the SEC. Between both Mississippi teams, Bama, LSU, and Auburn, a lot of games against each other still remain to be played. Plus the conference championship game.

If I compared the schedules correctly, given they currently all have at least one loss, it is impossible for more than one SEC team to finish the regular season with less than 2. There may well be a couple teams currently ranked above the Spartans that will wind up 3 losses.

Sure, the media and pollsters have long been infatuated with the SEC, and perhaps for good reason. After all, not counting Flor St. last year, one SEC team or another had captured the national championship for several years. And sure, in recent times, as "power" conferences go, the Big 10 has been regarded as being weak. But if Michigan State somehow finishes with only one loss -- how could the "committee" possibly justify overlooking them in favor of a team with 2, much less 3 losses?

Flor St. and Oregon are likely locks for the Final Four. Nobody's been mentioning Notre Dame, but they shouldn't be overlooked either. Their only loss was @ Flor St. and they came within a leprechaun's whisker of winning that game. If they win out, they'll definitely be in the hunt.

Problem #3. Realistically, Michigan State only has one chance left to impress the committee. Next Saturday, at home, when Ohio State visits. Since an improbable early loss to Virgina Tech, the Buckeyes have become quite the offensive juggernaut, averaging over 50 points per game in their last 6 outings. Michigan State's vaunted defense will have their hands full.

After that, while the SEC teams ranked above them will be slugging it out -- and strength of schedule matters -- the Spartans finish up with some weak sisters from the Big 10. Even if they beat them all 60-0, it's not likely to move them up in the polls. And the Big 10 conference championship game? MSU might well face Nebraska -- again. Unless it's super-lopsided -- not likely -- another win over the Cornhuskers won't parlay into an invite to the Big Dance either.

But first things first. The Spartans had a bye week to get ready for Ohio State. Whether that matters or not is debatable. They need to win this game, and convincingly. Then hope the in-fighting in the SEC works out to their advantage.

Look at it this way. If we can assume Flor St. and Oregon will be two of the invitees, and surely whoever comes out on top in the SEC will be going -- that only leaves one spot to compete for the national championship.

MSU's chances of getting it? Not good. Fair or not, that one bad fourth quarter in Oregon way back on Sept. 6 appears to have sealed their fate -- at least regarding national championship aspirations.

It's ironic in a way. Just last year, MSU won the Big 10 and went on to win the Rose Bowl. Normally this would be considered hugely successful for any Big 10 team. But under head coach Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have grown into a national power. Their expectations are higher. Just any old bowl, even the granddaddy in Pasadena, isn't good enough anymore.

But yours truly just doesn't see any way the Green can crack the Top 4 this year, especially when so many people in high places continue to give the Big 10 the Rodney Dangerfield treatment. Is it deserved? Overall, in comparison to other conferences, probably. Yet, despite how good they may be, that's the suite, or not so sweet accommodations Michigan State has to sleep in. Depending on how things work out elsewhere, they could move up a spot, maybe two, by the time the final poll comes out. Yet it doesn't matter if they move up three all the way to fifth. Only the Final Four as determined by the almighty committee will get a shot at glory.

And let's get real. Could Michigan State hang with the likes of Florida St., or whichever battle-hardened team(s) emerges from the SEC? Good grief, though they may have held their own for the better part of three quarters against Oregon, losing by a final score of 46-27 wasn't exactly a close call.

To MSU's credit, they've come leaps and bounds in the last few years from what they once were. They're now a perennial "contender" on the national stage. But the status of "elite" continues to elude them. Given the lack of quality competition offered by most of the 14 teams that constitute the Big 10 (go figure), the only way State can break through into the national limelight is by running the table from the first game, on through the conference championship. Teams elsewhere can get away with a single loss, though likely not by 19 points, and remain in contention. But in the Big 10, which is perceived as being weak anyway, there's no room for error.

The Sparties will go to a very respectable bowl game somewhere at the end of this season. The players, coaches, and fans will no doubt have a great time down south or out west. The university and athletic department will likely rake in millions. Hurray.

But they won't be playing for a national championship. Boo, hiss.

Maybe next year......

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