The Michigan State Spartans and Oregon Ducks may have both cruised to victory in Week 1 of the college football campaign, but Week 2 will provide no such comfort for two of this year's best in the nation.
The Spartans and Ducks square off Saturday in Oregon, in the week's premier college football matchup.
As Ryan Field of Fox Sports 1 points out on Twitter, these two programs are separated by just two spots in this week's USA Today poll:
With both teams in the hunt early on for a "Final Four" berth and a shot at the national championship, a win of this magnitude would go a long way to bolstering either side's resume.
With so much on the line, there are a few players who could make or break their clubs' chances of picking up a crucial early-season victory:
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
If the Ducks have any chance at holding off Sparty this week, they're going to need Marcus Mariota to keep one of the nation's top offenses firing on all cylinders.
Mariota's expected to be in the Heisman Trophy race once again in 2014, as Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer discuss on B/R Video's Team Stream Now:
Mariota threw for more than 3,600 yards and 31 touchdowns a season ago, while also posing a threat on the ground, where he ran for more than 700 yards and nine touchdowns, per ESPN.com.
In his first contest this season, Mariota got off on the right foot, completing 70 percent of his passes for 267 yards and three scores. He added 43 yards of rushing and a touchdown on six attempts before coming out against Jacksonville State.
His leadership, versatility and ability to guide Oregon's zone-read offense will all be crucial in breaking down a Michigan State defense that ranked 11th against the pass and second against the run, per Yahoo! Sports.
As one of the best players in the country, Mariota is bound to have a good game, even if he's playing against a tough defense. His track record, per ESPN.com, indicates that even against tough teams Mariota will throw for around 270 yards and two touchdowns.
While he'll need to keep the Spartans run defense honest, don't look for him to challenge them too often on the ground. Mariota's final line should be around a 60 percent completion rate, 275 yards and two scores through the air, with another 40 yards on the ground.
Tony Lippett, WR, Michigan State
For the Spartans, being able to score points to keep up with a Ducks offense playing at home is an absolute must if they hope to win and crack the top five heading into Week 3.
With the team's leading rusher in Jeremy Langford returning and veteran Connor Cook taking the snaps, there's a good chance that the Spartans can put some points on the board and hold the football against Oregon's defense.
The potential X-factor for the team's offense will be senior wideout Tony Lippett.
The team's top returning receiver from a year ago, per College Football Reference, Lippett will look to build on a Week 1 performance in which he went for more than 160 yards and a touchdown, per ESPN.com's box score.
Furthermore, he'll be one of Connor Cook's primary weapons through the air against a very young Oregon secondary.
According to rivals.com's depth charts, half of the Ducks' starting four defensive backs are freshmen:
|Oregon Ducks Starting Secondary|
Throw in the fact that one of the two upperclassmen in the secondary, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, has been battling an ankle problem, per Chantel Jennings of ESPN.com, and you have a recipe for success for Lippett and the Michigan State passing game:
If Lippett can't find a way to get going on Saturday against a young and banged-up secondary, it could spell big trouble for the boys from East Lansing.
All things considered, the case can be made that Lippett will have a big week on the west coast. As one of Cook's top targets and a beneficiary of Langford potentially opening up the passing game by running well, Lippett should see his fair share of passes. I'd expect the senior receiver to haul in seven passes for 105 yards and a touchdown.
Tony Washington, DE, Oregon
With the team's secondary concerns comes added pressure on the big boys up front.
If Cook does look to pass more against a less-experienced—and potentially hurt—core of defensive backs, Oregon will need to apply more pressure up front as a countermeasure.
Enter Tony Washington, the Ducks' athletic senior defensive end.
Washington led all Oregon players last year in tackles for loss as well as sacks, per College Football Reference.
He will have to be instrumental in not only applying pressure to Cook, but also in being a force in the run-stopping department against Langford.
With Ekpre-Olomu also being a key cog in the team's blitz setups, as Jason Quick of The Oregonian pointed out on Twitter, Washington's ability to get into the backfield is that much more important if Ekpre-Olomu is limited by that injury this week:
Despite the expectation that Ekpre-Olomu will play this weekend, Washington may have a tough time finding lanes into the backfield if Michigan State game-plans for Oregon's sack leader well. Still, his athleticism should see him pick up plenty of tackles. Expect Washington to make six tackles, one for a loss.
This one should be a great battle between one of the country's top defensive schools and one of the most prolific offenses of recent memory in college football.
With both teams having been so dominant since the beginning of last year, the winner of this contest should be determined by whose top players step up and which team can better exploit key matchups.
With potential Final Four ramifications, Michigan State vs. Oregon is this week's must-see college football matchup.
Follow Jon Reid on Twitter, @JonReidCSM