COLUMBUS — Six weeks ago if someone had put the words Michigan State and national championship in the same sentence, 99 percent of football fans would have assumed you were talking about the Spartans’ men’s basketball team making another trip to the Final Four.
But going into today’s game at Ohio Stadium, MSU’s football team is in about the same position as Ohio State with a very small chance of reaching the College Football Playoff if something unbelievably crazy happens and eight or 10 teams ahead of them finish their regular season with two losses.
Ohio State and Michigan State both come into today’s game at Ohio Stadium with 7-2 overall records and 5-1 records in the Big Ten.
The winner will be able to claim the Big Ten East title and a trip to the Big Ten championship game by winning its last two games. Penn State and Michigan would need help to do that, much as Ohio State needed it but didn’t get it last year after losing its head-to-head competition with Penn State.
Not many people saw Michigan State contending for a trip to the Big Ten championship game this year after it finished 3-9 last season.
But with a lineup heavy on underclassmen, especially on offense where only one starter is a senior, Michigan State went from stealth contender to serious contender.
While Michigan obviously remains Ohio State’s No. 1 rival, no team has done as much damage to the Buckeyes in recent years as Michigan State.
In 2013 and 2015, the Spartans kept Ohio State out of the postseason – the Bowl Championship Series in 2013 and the College Football Playoff two years after that.
Another loss to Sparty would mark the first time Ohio State had lost three games in a season during the Urban Meyer era.
Three match-ups stand out above the rest and could go a long way to determining which team comes out of this game on the fast track to the Big Ten championship game.
The first one is between Ohio State’s running game and Michigan State’s run defense.
Ohio State ranks first in the Big Ten in total offense and second in rushing offense at 235.3 yards a game. It has two running backs who share the position, J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber. And it has a dual threat quarterback in J.T. Barrett.
But Michigan State ranks No. 1 in the Big Ten and No. 3 nationally at defending the run. It allows an average of 87 yards a game on the ground.
It has contained four outstanding running backs. Penn State’s Saquon Barkley gained 63 yards against the Spartans. Notre Dame’s Josh Adams ran for 56 yards. Justin Jackson of Northwestern gained 41 yards and Iowa’s Akrum Wadley was limited to 30 yards.
The second match-up is Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke against a sometimes shaky Ohio State pass defense.
Michigan State started the year as a run-oriented offense. But in the last two games, Lewerke has taken over the lead role on offense from running back L.J. Scott after throwing for 400 yards and 445 yards.
Defending the pass has been a problem for Ohio State at times, so Lewerke could make things interesting.
But the match-up that might be the most interesting of all will be Ohio State against itself. How will the Buckeyes react to being blown out 55-24 by Iowa last week?
Will they come out focused, angry and strong? Or if it turns into a typical low-scoring, closely contested Ohio State-Michigan game, will some doubt creep into their minds?
A lot of people on the outside aren’t sure exactly who this year’s Ohio State team is. It’s possible some people on the inside aren’t, either.
The prediction: Ohio State 21-17.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.