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Wojo's pigskin picks: Spartans, Buckeyes advised to pile up the points

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Mark Dantonio's Spartans are No. 2 in the AP poll, No. 16 in FPI.

The Buckeyes and Spartans are in enviable spots, sitting atop the polls that don’t mean much anymore but we gripe about them anyway. They’re also in tough spots, because as the top two teams in the nation, they’re judged as if they’re runway models, every blemish scrutinized.

(Look at that mole on her hairline!)

(Look at that hole on their D-line!)

And each week as they tip-toe through the tulips on their schedules, Mark Dantonio and Urban Meyer face a troubling question: Do they have to win by a lot, or can they screw around and, say, make Northern Illinois feel good about itself?

It’s a true dilemma, even though “margin of victory” is not supposed to be a factor for the college football selection committee. But seeing as how the 13-member group is mostly composed of humans (there’s some debate about Pat Haden), how can it be ignored?

People are all in favor of sportsmanship, except when it comes to big-time football, Little League baseball and being the banker in Monopoly. Point spreads shouldn’t matter, but deep down, you know they do. For instance, Ohio State barely beat Northern Illinois and lost five first-place votes to Michigan State, a justifiable downgrade by the way.

And what about the Spartans? They’re 3-0 but an unsightly 0-3 against the spread. Because of that, some wacky ESPN formula called the Football Power Index (FPI) has Michigan State ranked 16th, one spot behind Oregon.

Now, before Spartans fans launch a drunken-man march on ESPN headquarters, they should know the FPI has no bearing on the playoff selection process. But just to be safe, Michigan State and Ohio State (sixth in the FPI) might want to crank it up a bit, and this is the perfect weekend to do it, during the annual Directional Michigan Festival.

Central Michigan comes to East Lansing as a 27-point underdog, while Western Michigan visits Columbus as a 311/2-point underdog. Those are big point spreads, and as someone who has spent years covering big spreads at local eateries, I know how exhausting it can be.

Even No. 22 BYU comes to Ann Arbor as a five-point underdog against Michigan. Apparently, alert wise guys noticed the Cougars have won with a ridiculous string of “Hail Marys,” or as they say in Utah, “Hail Joseph Smiths.”

It’s not completely fair to focus on point spreads, and it’s become a sensitive issue because of gamblers and certain newspaper pickers who embarrass themselves and their profession (Hey, John Niyo, how did you pull off that 0-15 last week?). ESPN actually agreed to stop flashing “Cover Alert” on the screen when an underdog is in covering position, and yet somehow violates larger moral issues by continuing to air Skip Bayless.

In this freaky new era of college football, it’s tougher and tougher to distinguish the powers from the pretenders from the Mississippis. It used to be easy to judge the elite, which were measured by time-tested standards that included, in no particular order: coolness of helmet, famousness of coach, “not being in Utah,” and a simple formula known as “legendary-ness of program.” If necessary, won-loss record was used as a tiebreaker.

Now you have all these complex metrics, and frankly, I don’t know what half of them are: SOS, BCS, FIP, FPI, RPI, WHIP, TCU, BABIP, GPA, SMH, ETC.

It got more complicated when the NCAA finally got sick of the whining and gave fans what they demanded — lower ticket prices! (Ha ha, good one). No, the four-team playoff began last year and was a rousing success primarily because the Southeastern Conference didn’t win it.

It also was a success because media people and coaches no longer determined the best teams based on whatever dopey criteria they used in the polls. Even better, the BCS computer was dismantled and sold for parts in the seedy back alleys of Silicon Valley.

So now we have this system that produces a TRUE CHAMPION because it’s settled ON THE FIELD — uh, right after it’s set up by “humans” on the selection committee. Because the polls and computers were yanked out of their grubby little hands, they’re forced to justify their choices with such nebulous criteria as “game control,” “body of work,” and “which fan base is most likely to set dumpster fires if we don’t pick ’em?”

(Answer: Ohio State, always.)

Many also use something called the “eye test,” a difficult way to measure, as you know if you’ve ever strained to distinguish between the fuzzy V and the fuzzy U. Of all the dumb ways to judge teams, the “eye test” might be the dumbest. Unless your eyes are trained on every game involving every contending team — and those eyes aren’t bloodshot from the previous night’s “committee meeting” — you’re guessing like everyone else, and you’re likely to notice eye-popping scores more than the garden-variety 20-13.

Thus the obsession with point spreads, right or wrong. There’s actually a chance the Michigans are sort of decent, not that anyone wants to hear it. Central Michigan lost close games to Oklahoma State and Syracuse, while Western Michigan lost by 13 to Michigan State. Yet by the math test, both are four-touchdown underdogs.

Dantonio isn’t falling for it. He remembers the days when Central Michigan beat Michigan State on a regular basis, including a 29-27 classic in 2009. I have a feeling that game tape is being played on an endless loop in Michigan State’s practice facility, right next to the Mike Hart montage.

The Spartans have to be careful. They can’t expect to reach the playoffs winning every game 35-21. Michigan State 35-21

The picks

BYU at Michigan: The Cougars are deceiving, starting with true freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum, who has a Magnum for an arm (not literally!) and happens to be 37 years old (or so I heard) after serving on a Mormon mission. BYU remains the proud owner of the most-fraudulent national championship in college football history, winning in 1984 with a 24-17 victory over a 6-5 Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl. Revenge is a dish best served old. Michigan 24-17

Western Michigan at Ohio State: Meyer is so frustrated his Heisman candidate quarterbacks are refusing to properly run his plug-and-play offense, he made a bold move. Starting against the Broncos will be 5-foot-9, 235-pound band trombonist Kyle Snodgrass. Ohio State 40-13

Massachusetts at Notre Dame: Here we go with the point spread issue again. The sixth-ranked Irish are 29-point favorites but they’re forgiven if they don’t cover. They’ve suffered so many injuries, the Leprechaun reportedly now is the nickel back. Notre Dame 34-12