December 4, 2013 at 10:15 am

Bob Wojnowski

Big Ten title game isn't all about Ohio State - just ask Spartans

Mark Dantonio on BCS, Ohio State
Mark Dantonio on BCS, Ohio State: MSU coach congratulates team, looks ahead

East Lansing — Judging by the rankings and the rantings, it’s all about the Buckeyes. They have the perfect record, the 24-game winning streak, the fancy quarterback, the gilded coach, the national attention. They have a nice warm spot in the BCS title game just waiting for them.

Yep, the Big Ten championship game Saturday night apparently is Ohio State against history, or Ohio State against conference perceptions, or Ohio State against the civilized world. In other words, it’s exactly what Michigan State is accustomed to, and determined to change.

The 11-1 Spartans will be in Indianapolis, too, and they’re way past oh-gosh, happy-to-be-here sentiments. This is their third 11-victory season in four years and second trip to the championship game. This is the next giant step for Mark Dantonio’s program, and while they appreciate all the kind words, please don’t pat them on the head and tell them they can go to the Rose Bowl, win or lose.

Michigan State is in a great spot, taking on a 12-0 Ohio State team that isn’t as invincible as its record. While everyone — probably even in the Big Ten commissioner’s office — is mapping out national-championship scenarios for the Buckeyes, there’s a reason Dantonio hit the “Why not us?” mantra again Tuesday. He was suggesting college football is crazy enough, and the Spartans are good enough, that no boundaries exist, and why couldn’t a victory propel them to the BCS title game?

No back door

Well, that’s not going to happen because at No. 10, Michigan State has too much ground to make up, and that 17-13 loss to Notre Dame still haunts. But Dantonio’s point is ambiguous enough to be valid. With this program and this remarkable defense, there aren’t many barriers left. The Spartans may understand their place in the national conversation, but it doesn’t mean they have to embrace it.

“I don’t really care if we’re overlooked, to be honest with you,” senior linebacker Max Bullough said. “I think we’ve been overlooked, underrated, all that stuff, in football and basketball for years. I’m just worried about, we win this game and we’re going to be talking about Michigan State going to the Rose Bowl the right way, not the back door.”

The placement of the door matters, and it should. In fact, the Spartans should pay zero attention to all the other possibilities. That’s our job.

And the possibilities are bizarre. If Ohio State, a 5˝-point favorite, wins, it almost assuredly will play for the national championship, probably against Florida State. That would allow Michigan State, even in defeat, to go to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1987 season, although not as Big Ten champion.

But this is still the BCS, so it can’t be quite that simple. If Ohio State narrowly beats Michigan State, and No. 3 Auburn clobbers Missouri in the SEC championship game, perhaps Auburn slides up, even with one loss, and Ohio State slips back to the Rose Bowl.

If that happened — and I doubt it would — it would be an enormous slap at the Big Ten, which has endured all sorts of indignities over the years. The theory is, to be safe, the Buckeyes should win in a rout (as if it’s solely up to them), which actually might seal the Rose Bowl bid for the Spartans.

See why I suggested they completely ignore all of it?

“It’s about us, it’s not about them,” Dantonio said. “If we’re 12-1 at the end of the week, why not us? That’s how I’m going to approach it. I’m not going to sit there and worry about losing.”

Spartans reality

In other words, what appears to be a win-win situation really isn’t, not from Michigan State’s perspective. After Michigan showed Ohio State was vulnerable in that 42-41 thriller, Michigan State can finish it off. And maybe that’s what the Buckeyes deserve, because they swing wildly (and literally) from unbeatable to insufferable. Urban Meyer issued no sanctions for his punching, finger-flipping players, and Jim Delany’s office didn’t suspend offensive guard Marcus Hall, either.

This game supposedly is all about Meyer and Braxton Miller and the Big Ten finally ending the SEC’s seven-year national-title run. If the Spartans pull the upset, there will be two narratives. One is that Michigan State really is good, and man, what about that defense? The other is, Ohio State just blew it and the Big Ten remains incapable of competing on a national scale.

Perceptions take a long time to form and a long time to change, and the Big Ten has developed some ugly ones. The Spartans have the No. 1 defense in the country but haven’t beaten a team currently in the top 25 and haven’t faced an elite quarterback, so no one is sure how dominant they really are.

“We play some of the best offenses in the country,” Bullough said. “We just make them look bad sometimes, so (people) might not think they’re that great. That’s the reality behind it, you know?”

Everyone is focused on the Buckeyes’ drive to create a new reality, and that’s fine. But the truth is, the Spartans also can stamp a new reality, even if it’s not the one most people expect.

Kurtis Drummond (27) Taiwan Jones (34) and Max Bullough (40) plan to show Ohio State the Michigan defense is No. 1 for a reason. / Dale G. Young
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