Let’s get this breaking news bulletin out of the way up front: The Michigan State Spartans will not win the National Championship. Their loss to Notre Dame ended those far-fetched dreams of fans who believed Kirk Cousins would deliver a national title to East Lansing for the first time since 1966.
However, by beating their hated rivals from Ann Arbor last week, the Spartans did put themselves in a position to win the Big Ten for the first time since 2010. OK sure, that was just last year. But considering last season was the first Big Ten title for the Spartans in 20 years, back-to-back championships are no small feat.
Of course, Michigan State is only 2-0 in conference play and still has six grueling games left, but the Spartans have the inside track to Indianapolis and the Big Ten Championship Game in December regardless. The biggest reason why? Their game against Wisconsin on Saturday is, in a word, irrelevant.
That’s right. The game against Wisconsin doesn’t matter (at least on paper). Simply put, if the Badgers come into Spartans Stadium and plow through the Green and White the way they have every other one of their opponents this year, it won’t affect the Spartans' chances for a rematch in December (and let’s be honest, no one in the Leaders Division will test Wisconsin…sorry Nittany Lions fans).
I know the showdown with the Badgers is one of the biggest games in East Lansing in recent memory. I know it’s homecoming. I know the Spartans want revenge on a Wisconsin team that went to Pasadena last year despite getting beat by Sparty and finishing with the same record. But take a look at the road ahead.
Michigan State controls its own destiny in the Legends Division, with huge matchups against Nebraska and Iowa still to come. The Spartans are the only team in the division without a conference defeat. Nebraska, Michigan and Iowa each have a conference loss already, and all three still play one another.
Even if, say, Nebraska beats both the Wolverines and Hawkeyes, it would be their game against the Spartans in two weeks that would actually determine who wins the division. Win the division, go to the Big Ten championship game. Win the Big Ten Championship game, see you in California (and not at the Holiday, Poinsettia or Disney On Ice Bowls).
In the Big Ten, the tiebreaker is king. The Spartans learned that the hard way last year, watching Wisconsin and Ohio State mosey on to BCS bowls while they were shunned to Florida on New Year’s Day (OK, that doesn’t sound too bad) to get beat down by Alabama in the Capital One Bowl (that does).
This year, the Spartans have already given themselves an edge by taking the head-to-head against the Wolverines. If Michigan State beats both Iowa and Nebraska, they will have clinched a spot in the title game before they even take the field in their season finale against Northwestern. They could send Keith Appling, Draymond Green and the rest of the basketball team out to play the Wildcats and still get a crack at the BCS.
Assume, for a moment, Michigan State pulls the Saturday Night stunner and beats Wisconsin. Going back to the scenario in which Nebraska runs the table (tough, but not impossible) which includes a win over Michigan State, it will be the same story for the Spartans as last year. Nebraska (7-1 in the Big Ten) would earn a trip to Indy over Michigan State (7-1 in the Big Ten) on the strength of their head-to-head.
No one remembers that Texas beat Oklahoma in 2008, because Texas stumbled a few weeks later against Texas Tech (the Michael Crabtree Coming-Out-Party Game) and eventually lost a tiebreaker that sent the Sooners to the Big 12 Championship Game and ultimately to the BCS.
No one will remember if this incredibly talented Spartans squad, with arguably the nation’s best defense, beats Wisconsin on Saturday night if they falter against the Huskers or Hawkeyes and don’t get to face the Badgers when it really counts.
So Spartans fans, enjoy Saturday night. Enjoy the atmosphere and electricity. Enjoy the homecoming festivities and national prime-time spotlight. Cheer when B.J. Cunningham snags a ball from the sky for six points. Boo when Russell Wilson sheds tacklers like Michael Vick and finds the end zone with both his arm and his legs.
Just remember, it’s not this game that actually matters. The Spartans beat the Badgers in the regular season last year too, and we have discussed how that played out. If Michigan State wants to play Wisconsin for all the marbles in December, the real work starts in Lincoln, Nebraska a week from Saturday.