Michigan center Mason Cole talks about New Year's Day matchup playing South Carolina in Outback Bowl. Angelique S. Chengelis
Michigan got the New Year’s Day bowl it wanted and was pleased. Michigan State didn’t get the bowl it wanted (and deserved) and was rightly miffed, although the Spartans might’ve gotten something just as good — more fuel.
Oh, the rest of college football can have its silly little controversy that isn’t really a controversy. Alabama over Ohio State for the fourth playoff spot was the right call, based on the long-established criteria that a team can’t make the field with a 31-point loss to Iowa.
End of argument. And, start of argument.
The trickle-down effect from the Big Ten’s playoff blanking hit the Spartans where they’ve been hit before, and when you wonder why they chew on disrespect as if it’s a protein bar, this is why. Michigan State (9-3) had a better record and a tidy 14-10 victory over Michigan (8-4), yet was assigned a less-prestigious game, the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, to face Washington State (9-3) on Dec. 28.
Michigan heads to the Outback Bowl, a Jan. 1 staple, and gets to face less-imposing South Carolina (8-4).
So to recap — Michigan State has the better record but gets the tougher trip and the tougher opponent.
Is it a slight worth chewing on? Sure. Is it a heinous, calculated slap at Mark Dantonio’s program? Not really. It’s the screwy nature of the bowls, compounded by Ohio State’s victory over Wisconsin, which knocked the Badgers down to the Orange Bowl. In one of those selection quirks you never hear about until it’s too late, the Citrus Bowl isn’t allowed to take a Big Ten team if one is playing in the Orange Bowl.
So the Spartans, who appeared headed to Orlando for a Jan. 1 matchup with LSU, were bumped — not because they’re perennially disrespected, but because of the rule. By then, the Outback already had grabbed Michigan — figuring Michigan State would land in the Citrus, as expected — and wasn’t inclined to tear up its plans, knowing the Wolverines draw a huge TV audience.
In a perfectly fair system, Michigan State would’ve slid over to the Outback Bowl and Michigan would’ve gone to the Holiday Bowl, but nothing about the bowl system has ever been perfectly fair. Fairness is the goal in selecting the four-team playoff, and I think the committee got it right. The rest of the bowls are about ticket sales and ratings, and according to the network numbers, Michigan is one of the biggest TV draws in the country.
All that said, the Spartans still are allowed to be annoyed, and several players tweeted out their disappointment. From linebacker Chris Frey: “What’s the point of playing a regular season if bowl decisions are made regardless of record?”
If it makes the Spartans feel any better (I doubt it), Northwestern (9-3) got shafted worse, sent to the Music City Bowl. Dantonio wasn’t biting on the issue, and I have a feeling he enjoyed delivering one answer about getting passed over.
“I just look at it as an opportunity to play in the Holiday Bowl,” he said Sunday. “The records are what they are. I’ll just continue to concentrate on beating Michigan and let things sort of sort out.”
That’s what Michigan State does very well, 8-2 in its last 10 meetings with Michigan. It’s been an illuminating season for the Spartans, and a hazier one for the Wolverines.
MSU surges, UM puzzles
When the season opened, the Spartans were determined to regain respect and they did, and now probably feel they have more to gain. When the Wolverines opened, they weren’t sure how good they could be, and weren’t completely settled at quarterback. And now, they’re still not sure how good they can be, and are hoping Brandon Peters can seize control of the position.
With Wilton Speight announcing he’ll play his final season elsewhere, an otherwise middlin’ bowl game becomes that much more important for Peters, who has recovered from his concussion and is practicing again. But Jim Harbaugh can’t assume anything about his quarterbacks anymore, which is why Michigan reportedly is a favorite to land Mississippi transfer Shea Patterson, who could be declared immediately eligible because of Ole Miss’ NCAA sanctions. Patterson was the top dual-threat quarterback prospect in the country in 2016, and flashed considerable promise before suffering a knee injury this season.
The Wolverines desperately need a feel-good victory over a winning team, and while South Carolina isn’t a power this season, it’s an SEC program with bursts of success. Surely, Michigan fans remember one of those bursts in the 2013 Outback Bowl, when the Gamecocks’ Jadeveon Clowney knocked the helmet off running back Vincent Smith and blasted his way into YouTube history.
South Carolina won that game 33-28, but this edition under Will Muschamp isn’t as talented. The Gamecocks’ offense ranks 108th in the nation, and they were pounded in their last game by rival Clemson 34-10. Michigan has lost its last two games, to Ohio State and Wisconsin, so this isn’t going to be a frolic in the Florida sun.
“We look at it right now, we’re not good enough, not good enough to win all our games,” Harbaugh said Sunday. “We need to be better.”
Just the start
Bowls and the accompanying practice time are especially beneficial for young teams, and if they can solidify the QB position, the Wolverines could set up very well for next season.
The same is true for the Spartans, who are just as young, and with QB Brian Lewerke, perhaps even more promising. It’s been an amazing turnaround from 3-9 to 9-3, and a bowl victory would provide the exclamation point. It should be an entertaining clash between two ranked teams. Washington State coach Mike Leach is an amusing character, and he has a formidable team that has beaten USC and Stanford. Washington State also lost its last game to its rival, beaten by Washington 41-14.
From different directions and perspectives, Michigan and Michigan State now face similar challenges. They didn’t land in the biggest bowls, but both programs have enough young talent to expect bigger goals ahead. There is still plenty to be gained, even more than the latest motivational chip the Spartans grudgingly picked up.
No. 16 Michigan State (9-3) vs. No. 18 Washington State (9-3)
Kickoff: 9 p.m. Dec. 28, SDCCU Stadium, San Diego
TV/radio: FS1/WJR 760
Michigan (8-4) vs. South Carolina (8-4)
Kickoff: Noon Jan. 1, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
TV/radio: ESPN2/WWJ 950