Can Michigan State Save Football in America's Heartland?

Greg CouchNational ColumnistSeptember 4, 2014

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Not to pressure Michigan State, but Saturday's game at Oregon will define the Spartans' entire year. It will set the Big Ten on the course for its future, whether it's going to be taken seriously for years to come in this new world of college football—of conflicts of interest, billions of dollars and a season-ending playoff.

Not to pressure Michigan State, but this game will validate, or invalidate, a team, a conference, Midwest football in general and even—not to pressure—the way of life in the heartland, white picket fences and mom's apple pie.

As a Midwesterner, I might have gone a little overboard there.

But while the focus of this weekend is on whether the Pac-12 has surpassed the SEC as the nation's top conference (it has), the truth is, this game means more to the Big Ten. Best, second best—it doesn't matter when four teams are going to the College Football Playoff.

What matters is fourth best, fifth best. The bullies of the Power Five conferences have all but kicked out the little guys so they don't have to share the new TV money. But do the math: There are four spots in that playoff and five bullies. Not to mention, the SEC will be lobbying for two of the four golden tickets.

So at the end of the year, the playoff selection committee is going to have to kick out the weakest bully.

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Not to pressure Michigan State, but at this point, that's the Big Ten. And this game is the league's best—maybe only—chance to change that.

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"I'm comfortable. We're in a great conference," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said on the Big Ten coaches' teleconference this week. "I'm sure there are people who want to say if we win, the Big Ten is strong and the Pac-12's weak or vice versa. But I don't really buy into that philosophy."

He doesn't have to.

It's about public perception and finding a reasonable excuse for the playoff selection committee to jettison someone. These are all new dynamics in college football, new politics that will come with the playoff. One current athletic director from each power conference—and none from the weaklings—is on the committee, making decisions that will affect the finances of the leagues.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, possibly the sharpest and shrewdest of the conference leaders, can already see what this game means. He told Sports Illustrated this week that Saturday's game could be "disproportionately important" for how people will view the Big Ten: "I don't downplay the game. It takes on an added dimension."

PAUL BEATY/Associated Press

But what happened to the Big Ten, anyway? There is no one answer, of course. But a lot of the shift has to do with style. The Big Ten has traditionally been a smashmouth league, and tradition has left the conference a little slow to modernize. Maybe Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler just had too much success for too long, and everyone has followed. Fans like to see football played that way.

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez was an offense guru at West Virginia, and he tried to bring that to Michigan, but fans never warmed up to him. Now, he's at Arizona, and he's a guru again. I asked him about that last year in his office, and he made a face and said in a mocking voice that he wasn't a "Michigan Man."

Now, Brady Hoke, a Michigan Man, is in place, and fans were thrilled to get him. Problem: It doesn't appear that he's the coach Rodriguez is.

Michigan is also in a statement game for the Big Ten this weekend, though to a lesser extent, against Notre Dame.

The truth is, so many traditional Midwest powerhouses—Michigan, Nebraska—have dropped at least a level. So Ohio State, which recruits heavily in the South with former Florida coach Urban Meyer, might be the only one still perennially near the top. Notre Dame is trying.

"Since I've come to Notre Dame, I don't know that our Midwestern roots have really shown themselves here," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told Bleacher Report. "Just in last year's class, I think we were 18 states. I think we signed 23 players. Their representation went from New Jersey to California to Texas. Certainly Florida and Texas, California are three big states for us."

JOE RAYMOND/Associated Press

None of those places is in the heartland.

"I think the demographics have shown a move to certain areas of the country now that are hotter recruiting," Kelly said. "The Carolinas are strong just because of the shift in demographics. Because of that, we're stronger in that area—Virginia, North Carolina on the East Coast."

If he went on much longer, he might have named every state outside the heartland. So much of the problem is that teams from the Rust Belt have been built on hardscrabble kids who came from blue-collar families. And when the factories close or move, that cuts into these teams.

"I mean, just take a look at Pennsylvania, the great high school teams that used to be in that area," Kelly said. "Now, because of the steel town, the exodus of so many jobs in that area, that high school football is not what it once was. I think that's happened in a lot of these industrial cities throughout the Midwest as well."

Most people expect the Ducks to speed right past the Spartans. But in the Rose Bowl last season, Michigan State outmuscled Stanford, which has outmuscled Oregon two years in a row. The Spartans, playing Midwest football, are actually just the kind of team that beats Oregon, with a hard-hitting defense that is fast and suffocates spread teams.

The prediction here is that Michigan State will win. Mom's apple pie depends on it.

Not to pressure Michigan State.

Greg Couch also writes for The New York Times. He was formerly a scribe for and The Chicago Sun-Times.