Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has held to the idea that if his team takes care of business, gets to the Big Ten championship game and wins, everything will take care of itself in terms of the playoffs.
That belief appeared to be validated on Tuesday when the College Football Playoff committee released its latest rankings and slotted Michigan State at No. 5, one spot out of the field. Clemson was No. 1 and Alabama was No. 2 again, followed by No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 4 Iowa. Notre Dame fell to No. 6.
Michigan climbed two spots to No. 10.
"I think if Michigan State holds serve against Penn State, which will be a tough game for them, but win that game and you're looking at Michigan State and Iowa having the inside track," ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said on the broadcast. "We won't know for sure, but for now, the winner of that game will probably be in the top four."
Holding serve, as Herbstreit said, will be key for the Spartans (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten) as they look to lock up the Big Ten East Division on Saturday when they host Penn State. It would send Michigan State to the conference championship for the third time in five years and essentially set up a likely play-in game for the playoff field between the Hawkeyes and Spartans.
Iowa, which plays at Nebraska on Friday, has already won the West and will be at the Big Ten title game Dec. 5 in Indianapolis. But for the Hawkeyes to remain in the top four, they can't afford a loss.
An undefeated Iowa team would also help Michigan State's resume if it were to beat Penn State and move on to eventually beat Iowa.
It would be added to wins over No. 8 Ohio State, No. 10 Michigan and No. 17 Oregon.
Much as he did a few weeks ago, before Michigan State suffered its only loss at Nebraska, Dantonio wasn't intending to watch the announcement of the rankings.
"I'll be at meetings and somebody will walk down and say this is where we're at," Dantonio said. "That's what I think will happen because I'm going to concentrate on what we can do. The best thing that we can do right now is focus on Penn State. Then everything else to me sort of works out. Just do what you do, and good things happen.
"That's usually been the best way that I've tried to approach things and let other people do their job."
The committee's job was to determine which teams would make up the top four after Ohio State, which was No. 3 last week, lost and Notre Dame, which was No. 4, looked unimpressive against Boston College.
Oklahoma jumped from No. 7 after a win over TCU while Iowa went up from No. 5. Michigan State improved from No. 9 to move past Notre Dame.
Committee chairman Jeff Long said the shifting was more about Oklahoma and Michigan State than it was about Notre Dame.
“Oklahoma and Michigan State moved up after significant wins over quality opponents on Saturday,” Long said. “We discussed why the Sooners with one loss should rank higher than the undefeated Iowa. The answer: An increasingly impressive body of work that includes wins the past two weeks over ranked opponents Baylor and TCU. We similarly had a lengthy discussion of Michigan State and Iowa. The committee viewed the two teams as equal in so many areas. Iowa's undefeated record made the difference.”
Oklahoma and Notre Dame will both be done after this week while the rest of the top six will likely be playing an extra week in conference championship games. Oklahoma closes at No. 11 Oklahoma State and Notre Dame travels to No. 9 Stanford.
In other words, there could be all sorts of movement over the final couple of weeks.
But Michigan State is in exactly the position it needs to be at this point.
"If we win the East and we get in that championship game and can win that, everything works moving forward," Dantonio said. "That's all we have to be concerned with. Don't watch the big picture, concentrate and focus on the moment and we'll be good."
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF RANKING
1. Clemson, 11-0 (1 last week)
2. Alabama, 10-1 (2)
3. Oklahoma, 10-1 (7)
4. Iowa, 11-0 (5)
5. Michigan State, 10-1 (9)
6. Notre Dame, 10-1 (4)
7. Baylor, 9-1 (10)
8. Ohio State, 10-1 (3)
9. Stanford, 9-2 (11)
10. Michigan, 9-2 (12)
11. Oklahoma State, 10-1 (6)
12. Florida, 10-1 (8)
13. Florida State, 9-2 (14)
14. North Carolina, 10-1 (17)
15. Navy, 9-1 (16)
16. Northwestern, 9-2 (20)
17. Oregon, 8-3 (23)
18. Ole Miss, 8-3 (NR)
19. TCU, 9-2 (18)
20. Washington State, 8-3 (NR)
21. Mississippi State, 8-3 (NR)
22. UCLA, 8-3 (NR)
23. Utah, 8-3 (13)
24. Toledo, 9-1 (NR)
25. Temple, 9-2 (NR)