Avoiding a knockout, that's the key for Michigan State.
Perhaps the best thing about college football is that the "survive-and-advance" mentality of other sports' playoffs lasts all season long. That includes the final game of the season, in this case Michigan State's battle with Minnesota, in which the Spartans require a win to keep themselves in the best position to reach a BCS game.
"With the Minnesota game, I think you look at what we always talk about stakes sort of get higher, you always have to have a cause to play in game, I believe that firmly," Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. "There's got to be reason, there's got to be a cause.
"To me this is an opportunity to win 11 football games, it's an opportunity to go 8-0 in the conference, our senior day at the end of the season in Spartan Stadium and last time to play in Spartan Stadium for our football team, and just as importantly, an opportunity to probably get in the top 10 with a win, in the country, which would be something that you strive for at the end of every season, I believe. Those are the opportunities that lie in front of us and the challenges that go along with Minnesota."
Dantonio's made a habit of talking about the season's big picture of late, something downright jarring in the one-game-at-a-time world of college football. But that's probably because he can clearly see what everybody else sees, and it's something quite simple. The more winning you do, the further you go. Dantonio knows if the Spartans win Saturday vs. Minnesota, it gives his team an extra cushion when it comes to a potential BCS bid.
The easiest way for Michigan State to reach a BCS bowl would be to win the Big Ten championship game. That sends the Spartans to the Rose Bowl. But should Ohio State prove too much to handle, Michigan State would still have a good case for making a BCS game. That is, if the Spartans beat Minnesota.
"Minnesota is an outstanding football team, I believe," Dantonio said. "They have a chance to win nine games in coming here for their last football game. They have experience. They have toughness, I think, that coach (Jerry) Kill has brought that to that football program. Coach (Tracy) Claeys has done an outstanding job as the interim head football coach, but I believe that everything comes from coach Kill, the philosophy, the dynamics that are involved in that football team, the people, and then also the way that they do things."
Though Minnesota has had a dream season, it's luck ran out vs. Wisconsin, and Michigan State has had a similar level of dominance this season. And, like the Badgers, the Spartans have flourished at stopping the run as well as successfully running the ball on offense. The Gophers have had a tendency to surrender big running days all year, and Spartans back Jeremy Langford is averaging 97.8 yards per game this season and has posted six straight 100-yard games.
If the Spartans keep doing what they've been doing, they'll crash into the Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game, a matchup of two teams with undefeated conference records. But first comes this weekend, first comes Minnesota. It's not just a tune-up. It's a must-win.
But in college football, aren't they all?
The Spartans and Gophers kick off at 11 a.m. Saturday on Big Ten Network.
Iowa at Nebraska, 11 a.m. Friday, ABC. In the blandly titled Heroes Game — though perhaps a tad stereotypical, why couldn't it be the "Battle for the Golden Ear of Corn" or something awesome like that? — one team is playing to keep exceeding expectations while the other is playing to keep from falling further below them. The Hawkeyes are a pretty good success story in 2013, and a win over "rival" Nebraska would give them an eight-win season in a year where that was certainly not expected. Meanwhile, the Huskers would reach the nine-win mark with a victory over Iowa, and though that's a fine season for most, it's reason for panic in Lincoln. Bo Pelini continues to remain on the hot seat mostly due to delusion, as nine wins this year would mean he's reached that plateau in all six seasons as Nebraska head coach. But Pelini has never coached his team to a BCS bowl, and that's not going to change this season, even with a win over Iowa.
No. 3 Ohio State at Michigan, 11 a.m. Saturday, ABC. Unlike previous incarnations of The Game, this one won't have anything on the line except pride for the Wolverines. A crummy season in Ann Arbor can't be forgotten even with a huge upset win over the rival Buckeyes. Ohio State, though, needs a win to remain undefeated and stay in the hunt for a spot in the national championship game. Believe it or not, Wisconsin fans, but it's Ohio State who leads the Big Ten in rushing, as Carlos Hyde has put together an amazing campaign. Michigan's rush defense is good, but stopping Hyde is a whole different challenge. Ohio State's rush defense is better, and that should tell the story as Michigan enters with the conference's second-worst run game, averaging just 128.8 yards on the ground each week. Sometimes the nothing-to-lose pick is the attractive one when the other has everything to lose, but with how demoralized Michigan has seemed this year, all arrows point to Ohio State staying undefeated.
Purdue at Indiana, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Big Ten Network. After averaging more than 43 points per game through their first nine games, the Hoosiers have scored a total of just 17 in their last two games against conference powerhouses Wisconsin and Ohio State. But the season's final week brings a matchup with Purdue, and Indiana figures to be able to get back to its ridiculously high-scoring ways. Similarly, the Boilermakers managed a couple of touchdowns against a terrible Illinois defense last week, and the only Big Ten defense worse than the Illini's is that of the Hoosiers. A high-scoring affair for both teams is doubtful, as Purdue is the lowest-scoring team in the Big Ten with a 13-points-per-game average. But expect Indiana to put on the kind of show it was putting on earlier this fall.
Northwestern at Illinois, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Big Ten Network. The stakes are subtly and surprisingly high in this game between a pair of teams that have combined for one win in conference play. On the Northwestern sideline, the goal will be to avoid a winless Big Ten season, something not historically uncommon in Evanston but something that would be shocking after the hype surrounding the Cats at the start of the 2013 campaign. For the Illini, a win would get them to a five-win season, and while 5-7 is not the record of champions, it's a pretty drastic improvement from the 2-10 mark this same team posted a year ago. Tim Beckman's detractors point to lack of wins of consequence, which is true, but at least the wins are in greater supply than they were a year ago. Look for whoever lifts the Land of Lincoln Trophy to have a pretty relieved smile on their face.
Penn State at No. 15 Wisconsin, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN. With no Big Ten championship game appearance on the horizon for the Badgers, this date with the Nittany Lions is their last chance to make a statement before becoming part of the argument for a spot in a BCS bowl game. It wouldn't figure to be too much of a challenge for this dominant Wisconsin team to handle mediocre Penn State. The Lions are allowing 146.2 rushing yards per game, and that number is expected to go up when the Badgers unleash the running-back duo of James White and Melvin Gordon. A Wisconsin win keeps the BCS hopes alive, though an Ohio State win in the conference title game seems to be the key thing to get the Badgers to the BCS. Meanwhile, a Penn State road win would certainly be a signature one for Bill O'Brien's program in an otherwise unexciting season.