We're only two weeks into the college football season, but that's all it took for a marquee matchup to grace ESPN's College GameDay that has serious College Football Playoff implications both ways.
Oregon and Michigan State will do battle in a Week 2 affair that has more of the feeling of a Rose Bowl, and the implications couldn't be higher. The third-ranked Ducks and seventh-ranked Spartans will both have a chance to add a season-altering win, but a defeat will make it an uphill climb for a top-four finish at the end of the season.
Heisman favorite Marcus Mariota got his campaign off to a strong start against South Dakota last weekend, but his quest to become the fifth straight quarterback to lift the Heisman Trophy will be soon forgotten if the Spartans pull off the upset in Eugene.
Take a look at everything you need to know for Saturday night's matchup.
Date: Saturday, September 6, 2014
Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: Autzen Stadium, Eugene, Oregon
Live Stream: Fox Sports Go
Oregon Player to Watch: Marcus Mariota, QB
The amount of speed and talent on the outside for Oregon's offense goes without saying, and it tends to recreate itself season after season to give the team one of the most formidable attacks in college football.
But there's only one Marcus Mariota.
After two dominant seasons manning the Ducks offense in 2012 and 2013, Mariota opted to return for his junior season despite throwing 66 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions in his career. From ESPN to Bleacher Report, the quarterback has seen his name crop up on Heisman watch list after Heisman watch list.
In sparse action, as you'd expect against FCS opponent South Dakota, Mariota played just one half but was spectacular. He finished with 14-of-20 passing for 267 yards, throwing three touchdowns and rushing for another.
But he'll be hard-pressed to post a similar performance against the hard-hitting Spartans defense.
Michigan State finished 2013 with the second-best total defense in all of FBS, holding opponents to just 252 yards per contest. The Spartans have lost seven defensive starters from the team that beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl, though.
"They're a great defense," Mariota told ESPN.com's Chantel Jennings. "They're really good at what they do. They put their players in good positions to make plays. We'll have to communicate up front and make sure we're good in our protections. And try to take our shots."
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller sees it as a crucial test for the Oregon quarterback:
Matt Miller @nfldraftscout
Marcus Mariota vs Michigan State's defense this week will be a great test for him—and for Drummond, Calhoun, Waynes and that defense.9/3/2014, 8:32:15 PM
Taking care of the ball will be key for Mariota. He's only tossed 10 career interceptions, third fewest for a player with 20 career starts over the last three seasons, according to ESPN.com's Brian Shalvoy. But as impressive as his four picks on the season were last year, each of them came in the final two games—one a loss.
Michigan State beat Stanford in last year's Rose Bowl by winning the turnover battle and dominating the passing game. To beat Oregon, it will need Mariota to struggle in order to get an advantage in both of those categories.
Michigan State Player to Watch: Jeremy Langford, RB
In Mark Dantonio's punishing offense, with a burly offensive line and a pro-style scheme, having an elite running back with the right skill set is crucial to the team's success.
Enter Jeremy Langford.
Langford has been picking up where Le'Veon Bell and Javon Ringer left off in the Spartans backfield, namely making waves as one of the nation's top running backs. 2013 marked his first season taking over for Bell in the backfield, and he dazzled with 1,422 yards and a ridiculous 19 total touchdowns (18 rushing) on nearly five yards per carry.
The 6'1", 208-pound senior was a workhorse in the Rose Bowl against Stanford, carrying 23 times for 84 yards and a score.
As for this season, Langford has been watched closely with a nagging injury and split carries in the season opener, but Brian Calloway of the Lansing State Journal reported he's a full go in practice and for the game.
Langford can make his impact even against the best of defenses, but the Statesman Journal's Gary Horowitz captured why he might be even more excited than usual about Saturday's game:
Gary Horowitz @GHorowitz
Oregon allowed 578 yards rushing and 6 TDS in losses at Stanford and AZ last year. MSU's Jeremy Langford must be drooling. #SJNow #MSUvsUO9/3/2014, 11:43:20 PM
With a downhill running style and behind a strong offensive line, Langford could really pose problems for Oregon's defense—a unit that prides itself on speed and versatility more than lining up and hitting you in the mouth.
Connor Cook has emerged as a big-time quarterback with playmaking ability for Michigan State, and that only makes Langford's chances of breaking out even greater. Oregon better have some defensive tricks up its sleeves to deal with Michigan State's dynamic offense.
Michigan State offers too much on offense to not make this one interesting, but defensive holes won't be enough to overcome a machine-like Oregon offense and a raucous Autzen Stadium crowd.
Having last year's No. 2 defense is great and all, but it's just that—last year. With seven new starters on defense, the Spartans might return to their elite level on defense, but it won't be early in the season and it won't come against the high-powered opponents they face Saturday.
Oregon has struggled in recent seasons to go through its Pac-12 schedule undefeated, but a marquee nonconference game at home early in the season shouldn't deter the Ducks' chances of an unbeaten season.
Prediction: Oregon 38, Michigan State 30
Note: All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.
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