League title could be start for Michigan State, Iowa, Big Ten
INDIANAPOLIS >> Mark Dantonio and Kirk Ferentz kept the discussion on point Friday.
The Michigan State and Iowa coaches are in Indianapolis to win a Big Ten championship. Nothing more.
They'll let everyone else debate the hot-button issues — the national championship picture, whether two teams from the same conference deserve to make the playoffs and which league is the nation's best.
"We've been here before," Dantonio said. "This is still goal No. 1 for us."
Even amid, the festive environment surrounding Lucas Oil Stadium.
The conventional wisdom is that the title game Saturday night is essentially a play-in for one of the four precious spots in the second College Football Playoff. If a few other things break the right way, another Big Ten may slip in.
Don't discount it.
Unbeaten Iowa, championship game favorite Michigan State and defending national champion Ohio State were ranked Nos. 4, 5 and 6 this week by The Associated Press and the College Football Playoff committee and their resumes might not make it any easier.
The Spartans and Buckeyes both finished 11-1 overall and 7-1 in conference play, but East Division champion Michigan State earned its third ticket to Indy in five years by upsetting Ohio State in Columbus two weeks ago.
West Division champ Iowa (12-0, 8-0) is one of two remaining unbeaten teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision and, along with Michigan State, was one of five FBS teams with multiple road wins over ranked foes.
With three teams ranked in the top six and five in the CFP's top 15, the discussion has now turned to whether the Big Ten deserves two spots in the playoff — a subject neither coach was willing to touch.
"It's great for interest in the sport. I'm not knocking it by any stretch, but I think it's a lot of rhetoric," Ferentz said. "Really what happens is things get decided on the field."
That's one point both coaches agree on.
Here are some other things to watch Saturday:
RUN TO DAYLIGHT: Iowa is the first FBS team since 1997 to have three running backs run for at least 195 yards in one game during one season. If Jordan Canzeri, Akrum Wadley or LeShun Daniels do it against Michigan State's usually stingy defense, it could be a long day for Sparty. Michigan State, meanwhile, will rely on three blue-collar backs to poke holes in Iowa's run defense, which finished No. 2 in the Big Ten (110.0 yards per game).
QB QUOTIENT: Connor Cook is the first Michigan State quarterback to earn first-team all-conference honors in 50 years. He's considered one of the best prospects in the NFL draft, already holds the school's career mark for TD passes (71) and needs 338 yards to break Kirk Cousins' career mark in that category. Iowa's C.J. Beathard just wins. Since taking over last season, he's 13-0 — the first Iowa quarterback to achieve the feat.
THE KINGMAKER: If watching the Big Ten's two top quarterbacks isn't interesting enough, perhaps the battle between Iowa CB Desmond King and Michigan State WR Aaron Burbridge will be. King leads the FBS with eight picks and has tied Iowa's single-season record. Burbridge, meanwhile, led the league in receptions (6.2 per game) and yards receiving (96.5). Both were named the Big Ten's best at their position earlier this week.
REWRITING HISTORY: The Spartans have emerged as a perennial Big Ten contender, winning major bowls each of the past two seasons. What they haven't done, since 1966, is claim a national title. A victory this weekend would give them a chance to end that drought. Iowa, on the other hand, is 12-0 for the first time in school history and is trying to complete its first undefeated season since 1922. "It's been a magical season in some ways," Ferentz said. "I've never been on a football team that was 12-0. Yeah, baseball, yeah, but never football. I've been around championship-level teams, outstanding football teams, but it's a really tough trick to do."
RED OUT: For the first time in five Big Ten championship games, there will not be a sea of red inside the stadium. Iowa and Michigan State made sure of it with road wins at Wisconsin and Ohio State. The Badgers won the first two titles in Indy before getting routed by the Buckeyes last December. The year that Wisconsin didn't make it, 2013, the unbeaten Buckeyes were upset by Michigan State.
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