The College Football Playoff committee is relieved the Big Ten has a championship game, so Iowa and Michigan State can settle this on the field. Undefeated Iowa is No. 4 in the playoff rankings. One-loss Michigan State is No. 5. Whichever one wins Saturday’s Big Ten title game is a virtual lock for the four-team playoff.
This won’t be like last year, when Ohio State clobbered Wisconsin 59-0 for the conference crown. The Spartans are only 3.5-point favorites, even though they played the far tougher schedule, beating Oregon, Michigan and Ohio State.
“We had great debate about Iowa and Michigan State,” CFP committee chairman Jeff Long said this week. “I thought from the conversation in the room that a vote may have put Michigan State in front of Iowa. It did not, but I can tell you those discussions were long and hard.”
With Iowa enjoying a Cinderella season, here are three keys for the Hawkeyes to keep the clock from striking midnight in Indianapolis.
1. C.J. Beathard as MVP
Michigan State made a statement two weeks ago, holding Ohio State to 132 yards of total offense. But this defense isn’t as consistently dominant as recent Spartans teams. Indiana, Nebraska and Penn State all passed for at least 295 yards against them.
Iowa’s ground game is good enough to keep the Spartans honest, and C.J. Beathard needs to do what he’s done all year: make big plays with his arm and feet. He knows how to take care of the ball (14 touchdown passes, three interceptions). Now he needs a performance like Michigan State’s Connor Cook delivered in this game two years ago (304 passing yards, three touchdowns).
2. Contain Aaron Burbridge
This might be keeping Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz up at night. When the Gophers suffered their five-point loss at Iowa three weeks ago, KJ Maye (106 yards), Brandon Lingen (105) and Drew Wolitarsky (71) still had big games receiving.
Aaron Burbridge was named the Big Ten Receiver of the Year and is a highlight machine. But the Hawkeyes can counter with Desmond King, the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year. King tied for first in the nation with eight interceptions.
In Big Ten play, the Hawkeyes ranked ninth in pass defense, allowing 227.1 yards per game. With Michigan State’s offensive line now healthy, it’ll be tough for the Hawkeyes to get much pressure on Cook. So the Iowa secondary will need a big game.
3. Set the tone again
Critics have doubted the Hawkeyes all year because of their favorable schedule. Few would bet against Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, whose team is 5-1 over the past three years against top-10 teams.
Michigan State has more star power. Besides Cook, there’s three-time All-Big Ten defensive end Shilique Calhoun, and standout defensive tackle Malik McDowell.
But Ferentz’s team has yet to blink. Iowa has outscored opponents 71-23 in the first quarter, setting an immediate tone. If the Hawkeyes start with the ball, maybe it’s a quick Beathard strike to underrated Matt VandeBerg, or a 15-yard, cutback run by Jordan Canzeri. If they start on defense, maybe linebacker Josey Jewell stuffs the Spartans for a loss. A big play early would settle the nerves and bring the expected huge Iowa crowd to life.
... And a prediction
The statistics are close across the board. Turnover margin? Both teams are plus-14. The Hawkeyes will prove they’re no fluke, but Cook’s big-game experience will be the difference. Michigan State 33, Iowa 27