Over the weekend, then-No. 2 (Associated Press Poll) Michigan State jumped out to a 21-0 first half lead over Purdue and seemed headed to one of those one-sided college football blowouts.
For the third time this season, the Spartans found themselves in a position where they had to fend off a late rally by an opponent that on paper doesn’t even belong on the same field with a ranked in the top 5. Michigan State held on a 24-21 win over the Boilermakers.
With teams around the country jockeying for positions in January’s College Football Playoff, the way you annihilate lesser teams on your schedule apparently makes you look good in the eyes of those who pick the four teams for the playoff.
After all, defending national champion Ohio State got into last year’s playoff game by blowing out Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, even though TCU was ahead of it in the ranking prior to that game. The latest polls bear this out as well.
In the latest AP poll, the Spartans fell from No. 2 to No. 4. Overtaking Michigan State in the No. 2 and No. 3 spots is TCU, which had a 50-7 win over Texas and Baylor (the latter blew out Texas Tech 63-35). In the ESPN Coaches Poll, Michigan State fell to No. 3 and was replaced by TCU.
Strangely enough, Ohio State is still No. 1 in both the AP and the ESPN Coaches poll, and it had a tough time against a gritty Indiana squad in a 34-27 win.
That’s something that might not sit too well with folks in East Lansing, especially Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, who dismissed the whole concept of having to blow out his opponent to appease the College Football Playoff committee.
“I think that what we do is we get ready to play a football game. I don’t really care. The bottom line is, do you win or do you lose?” Dantonio said after Saturday’s win over Purdue. “I’ve been on a football team before that would win by about six points or four points and on the last play of the game.
“All they did was win 14 games (2002 Ohio State). So, the bottom line is just win. You’re the No. 2 team in the nation, you’re going to get everyone’s best shot.”
On one hand, Dantonio is absolutely right, the bottom line should be about “just win baby.” But this is the currently reality of the College Football Playoff. Blowout wins over lesser opponents seem to impress those who decide college football’s version of “Bracktology.” Squeaking by bad teams like Purdue isn’t going to win you any “love” from the committee. It is what it is.
Another possible scenario that would affect the Spartans playoff status is if Ohio State would lose a game on their way to their Nov. 21 showdown in Columbus. If the Buckeyes were to lose a game to Maryland or Penn State along the way and Michigan State was to stay unbeaten, what are the Spartans chances to be a part of “the final four?”
Does Michigan State have to annihilate the rest of the teams on its schedule by differences of 50 or 60 points?
What most college football pundits and analysts don’t seem to take into consideration is that teams in your conference—whether it’s the Big Ten, the SEC or even Conference USA—are going to play you tough. When you play the same teams every year, your opponent knows what you like to do whether they have the personnel or not to match up against your favorite team.
Then-No. 3 Ole Miss probably didn’t see Florida, ranked 25th last Saturday, coming until it saw the final score. That’s the volatility of conference play. For a rising college football team looking to prove itself, beating a top-5 team is its version of a national championship.
And let’s face it, every so often even a mediocre team may have a favorable matchup with your team in terms of personnel or style of play. Last season, Purdue and Indiana played Michigan State and Ohio State close.
Then there’s a matter of pride. The kids on that bad or unranked team are on scholarship, too and they’re not going to let you just come and blow them out. That’s the unpredictability of 18-to-22-year-old college kids.
At the end of the day, Dantonio is really taking the right approach to all this with his team. The only he can control is getting his team ready to play each week. All the Spartans have to do is to keep winning and let the chips fall where they may.
How the College Football Playoff Committee perceives the way in which Michigan State wins is not in Dantonio’s job description.