You gotta admit, Michigan State's strategy to reach the national playoff is clever, and working marvelously. First of all, Michigan State had the foresight to play in the Big Ten. (Hey, Notre Dame didn't think of that!) Then the Spartans decided to get really good while the conference was really bad. Then they opted to play most of their key games at home.
It's simple and ingenious, and there's more. Fully aware the Big Ten ranks sixth among the Power Five conferences, Michigan State is determined to alter perceptions. Rather than beat up conference opponents by absurd margins such as 63-0 or 27-3, the Spartans are willfully encouraging teams to score lots of points in the fourth quarter to create the impression of fierce competitiveness.
If Michigan State were to, say, pound Nebraska and Purdue by multiple touchdowns, the perception would grow that the Big Ten stinks. Instead, this sends the message the Big Ten stinks so badly, Michigan State can't even stay interested to the end of a game. Oops, wait. That's not the intended perception, but it's sort of the point.
Since college football caved to the blubbering masses who thought the sport wasn't bloated and exploitative enough, debate has raged about which four Southeastern Conference teams should be invited to the national playoff, and whether the state of Mississippi should be capped at one. There's also been minor debate about whether the Big Ten should even be allowed to put up its logo in the selection committee room.
It's all very confusing. For instance, one Las Vegas oddsmaker lists Michigan State as the favorite to win it all, despite being ranked eighth. Other oddsmakers peg Michigan State somewhere below the sixth- or seventh-best SEC team, but a solid favorite over Vanderbilt.
As it stands, according to my sketchy calculations, the final four would be: Jameis Winston, one of the Mississippis, one of the Alabamas, one of the Baylors. Can Michigan State climb in despite facing only one ranked team (Ohio State) and one rank rival (Michigan) the rest of the way? Sure, but it'll take some work, and the Spartans will have to play all their cards. If that means sending Tom Izzo on the campaign trail toting Final Four banners, do it.
It's about perception, and also about the Big Ten's pukey nonconference record, and also about that little 46-27 blip at Oregon. A weak schedule hinders, too, with the Spartans pretty much limiting their Big Ten trips to the state of Indiana. To be fair, it's not Michigan State's fault Michigan elected to de-emphasize football, or that Indiana ran out of quarterbacks.
The larger point is, if Michigan State is going to carry the smudge of Big Ten mediocrity, it also should reap the benefit. And by "reap the benefit," I mean "saunter to a 12-1 record."
Other programs can whine about the Big Ten's softness, but they had their chance to hop in line at the buffet. When the conference opened its doors to new members, power programs sniffed and turned away, while Maryland and Rutgers raced in so quickly they slipped on the cash.
Well, look at the scenario now. While Michigan State gets to play Indiana on Saturday, unbeaten Notre Dame (not a Big Ten member) has to play at Florida State, a much tougher task unless Winston opens a chain of memorabilia stores before Saturday.
The Spartans face an untested freshman quarterback who has to be petrified — "Get back here and suit up, Son!" — and will battle for the cherished Old Brass Spittoon. The poor Irish will face a Heisman-winning quarterback in a hostile, tobacco-infested environment, and battle to avoid being treated like an old brass spittoon.
It's different in the South, in case you haven't noticed. Nick Saban lashed out this week at fans who weren't happy with Alabama's meager 14-13 victory at Arkansas. Just imagine the reaction if Alabama were outscored 33-7 in the fourth quarter of back-to-back conference games. Saban would be standing on the top steps of the stadium with a megaphone as the angry hordes advanced.
Unfortunately, style points matter in the playoff system, just like it matters to blatantly ignore the misdeeds of star players. Always eager to help, I've come up with a four-point plan to get Michigan State into the playoffs:
■ Send framed photos and jerseys to Florida State and all SEC athletic departments, requesting specific autographs. Wait for evidence to return in mail.
■ Note to Mark Dantonio: Gently remind quarterback Connor Cook not to sign 950 items for a modest fee.
■ Don't fret six unbeaten teams remain — Florida State, Baylor, Notre Dame, Marshall, One Mississippi, Two Mississippi. There's plenty of time for them to knock each other off, or get busted for something.
■ Lastly, the Spartans probably should go ahead and win the rest of their games — preferably in three quarters or less.
Pick: Michigan State 42, Indiana 20
Notre Dame at Florida State: It's getting messy for the Seminoles, who are desperately trying to stall various Winston investigations until they wrap up a second straight tainted title. The Irish are double-digit underdogs, which has never stopped them before when facing a powerful Southern team. With Winston — Florida State 42-14. Without Winston — Notre Dame 13-3
Rutgers at Ohio State: The Buckeyes are attempting the same trick as the Spartans, pretending they're running some sort of Big Ten gauntlet, when actually they're only eyeing each other. The showdown in East Lansing is Nov. 8 and students are asked to get there early. Like, now. Ohio State 38-10
Purdue at Minnesota: The Golden Gophers are marching inexorably to the West Division crown, which could set up a title showdown against the Spartans, which officially would end the Big Ten's playoff hopes. Minnesota 28-21
Texas A&M at Alabama: The Aggies have lost twice, but according to SEC by-laws, won't be eliminated from the playoff picture until they lose four times. Meanwhile, Saban wrestles with the same issue as Dantonio, trying to make games appear competitive — but not too competitive! Alabama 32-14