The expectations are lofty, and the hopes for fans are even higher for Michigan State football in 2015. In order to truly live the mantra of “Reach Higher”, the Spartans have three measurable goals to accomplish:
Win the Big Ten
Earn one of four spots in the College Football Playoff
Win the National Championship
Michigan State is still on track to have another phenomenal season which can include a finish in the Top 10 or even Top 5. But the only number that matters to Michigan State is one — In order to finish No.1 in the country, MSU will have to go undefeated.
This season, the Spartans have already been as close as they can possibly be to No. 1. Come January, Michigan State and its fans hope the Spartans will be alone on top of college football. How can they finish No. 1? Well there are a plenty of things they can do. But there’s only one thing they absolutely cannot do, and that’s lose.
Don’t lose. No matter what.
No pressure or anything.
For the currently undefeated Michigan State, one loss will count them out of the College Football Playoff and likely the Big Ten title game. The Spartans can’t lose. With every game being a must-win, MSU is walking on eggshells through the first half of the 2015 season.
The No. 2 ranked Spartans (5-0) narrowly defeated the Purdue Boilermakers on Saturday 24-21. Following the near-upset, Michigan State dropped to No. 4 in the AP Top 25 Poll. Each victory brings more and more questions about the future of the team with National Championship aspirations.
Two days after the Spartans survived a near-scare at home against Central Michigan, head coach Mark Dantonio addressed the concerns of his team’s play over the first three games of the season.
“I think it’s human nature to be looking to say, ‘Okay, here they are, here they are, when are they going to fall, when is that shoe going to fall.’,” Dantonio said. “And I would just encourage people to stay with us and hang with it and have fun doing it and get ready to play Purdue. Come excited and ready to go.”
And the fans did come. And on Saturday at noon, they were somewhat excited. They were ready to go – ready to go home, that is.
Over half of the announced 74,418 in attendance at the 100th annual homecoming game left at halftime. By the end of the game, it was up to a student section that was about 10% full to get loud enough to help the Michigan State defense make a stop in the windy, rainy and cold conditions in East Lansing.
Before the game, Dantonio continued to address the concerns and questioning of his team’s close victories.
“I understand that everybody is a coach out there. A lot of armchair coaches out there,” Dantonio said. “You guys don’t have anything that holds your hands up right here, but a lot of arm chair coaches out there and everybody’s got the answers. But on the day of the game, just understand that everybody is playing against somebody, and somebody else has a plan, too.”
Last Saturday, Purdue was that “somebody else”, and its plan was to shock the world. It almost did.
A Michael Geiger field goal and last minute stop by the MSU defense were the only things that stood in the way of the Boilermakers becoming the Spoilermakers.
What exactly would a loss to Purdue have meant in the grand scheme of things? Nothing but the end of the season for MSU and an absolute meltdown of an entire fan base, of course. “Reach Higher” would have immediately transformed from a goal to an impossibility. Had David Blough lead his offense for a game winning touchdown drive, an Outback Bowl representative would have left East Lansing with some good news for his selection committee back in Florida.
One loss drowns the Spartans.
However, the three point win keeps their heads above water. And Dantonio was happy, believe it or not, with his team’s ability to survive with a win.
“The bottom line is, do you win or do you lose?” Dantonio said. “I’ve said that before. I’ve been on a football team before that would win by about six points or four points and on the last play of the game. All they did was win 14 games (2002 Ohio State). So, the bottom line is just win.”
But with the win comes even more questions about MSU’s quote-unquote elite status. Can this team that is plagued with injuries continue to win these close games? Will the defense be able to contain a high-powered offense? Can the offense score against an elite defense? How does this team compare to Michigan? Is MSU really a top five team in the country?
I actually heard fans asking each other all of these questions as they walked out of Spartan Stadium after MSU squeaked past Purdue. They had to have been rhetorical because there’s no way Spartan fans want to hear the answers. If Michigan State continues to play the way it played against Purdue, the answers to those questions are: No, No, No, Michigan is better, and No.
Halfway through the season Michigan State football is hanging off the edge of a cliff. Everyone is waiting to see if the Spartans will be pushed over the edge to national irrelevancy by a unexpected mid-season foe, if they’ll hang off the edge by their fingertips by barely surviving one game at a time, or if Purdue was the last time they’ll ever even see over the edge on their way to national dominance.
Ohio State Looms:
The Michigan State – Ohio State matchup can still be the game of the year. It can still determine the champion of the Big Ten East. It could still be the first No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in the Big Ten since 2006. But that’s only if both the Spartans and Buckeyes can hang on to their undefeated records for another six weeks. The Buckeyes haven’t exactly been the unanimous No. 1 team this year, either.
A few hours after Purdue nearly ruined Michigan State’s season, Indiana nearly did the same thing for Ohio State. Urban Meyer’s team had a scare against Northern Illinois in Columbus a week before as well. Michigan State and Ohio State both have a lot to prove, despite being 5-0.
Facing this type of adversity is familiar to Ohio State and Mark Dantonio. In 2002, the Buckeyes, lead by head coach Jim Tressel and defensive coordinator Dantonio won five games by less than 10 points against unranked opponents. OSU went undefeated, winning the 2002 National Championship.
The Buckeyes and the Spartans are both getting negative attention – not for losing, but because they should be winning better. The Potential-Game-of-the-Century on November 21 could ultimately end up being the “what-if” game of the year. If MSU vs. Purdue and OSU vs. Indiana are a litmus test for the Big Ten, the middle of the road teams in the conference will revoke any chance of having a representative in the CFP.
Let’s assume, however, that OSU is for real, and that the Buckeyes will indeed come into true form soon. The Spartans still need to hold up their end of the bargain. They have to remain undefeated until November 21. In order to do that, Michigan State needs to beat Rutgers (Oct.10), Michigan (Oct. 17), Indiana (Oct 24), Nebraska (Nov. 7), and Maryland (Nov. 14).
In other words: Don’t lose to Rutgers. Don’t lose to Michigan. Don’t lose to Indiana. Don’t lose to Nebraska. And for God’s sake, don’t lose to Maryland – that would be the let down of all let downs.
And oh, by the way, Michigan State still would have to defeat Penn State on Nov. 28 and win the Big Ten Title game following a victory over Ohio State to secure its place in the Playoff.
One loss and it’s over.
Well, not exactly. A few weeks ago some wise mathematicians in the world of college sports analysis argued possibilities for Michigan State to remain in the Top Four and get a Playoff berth if the Spartans’ only loss is to an undefeated Ohio State. (I also heard once that it was possible for the Detroit Lions to win a Super Bowl.)
Realistically, a Spartan team with one loss can make it to the Rose Bowl – which would be the second time in three years the Spartans venture to Pasadena. Still, a Rose Bowl berth isn’t the expectation or the goal for MSU. For the Spartans to “Reach Higher” a Big Ten Championship and Playoff appearance are the benchmarks.
With two months of football to be played, a Big Ten Championship, College Football Playoff berth and National Championships are still in sight for Michigan State
The key to turning those visions into reality:
No matter what, don’t lose.