Buckeyes won’t have it easy against upset-minded Spartans

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Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio and Connor Cook will be looking for one more huge victory together on Saturday in Columbus. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

It could’ve been even better. It should’ve been the Big Ten’s most-hyped regular-season game since Ohio State and Michigan’s unforgettable 1-vs.-2 clash in 2006. Still, No. 9 Michigan State at No. 3 Ohio State (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7) is as high-profile a matchup as college football has to offer on Saturday.

And despite the Spartans’ imperfect 9-1 record — and a big ol’ point spread of 13½ — this game has a great chance to deliver lots of championship-level drama.

As the Buckeyes try to get to 11-0 on the season and 31-1 against Big Ten opponents under Urban Meyer, they’re still dealing with criticisms of their passing game, their offensive leadership and their 2015 schedule. No doubt, they’d like to make a major statement by dominating MSU, still the only Big Ten program to deal Meyer and the Buckeyes a defeat (in the 2013 league title game).

But this is still MSU we’re talking about. This is still a team led by an elite coach in Mark Dantonio and a potential NFL first-rounder at quarterback in senior Connor Cook. In the schools’ last two meetings — including the Buckeyes’ 49-37 victory in East Lansing that fueled their rise to the College Football Playoff — Cook has passed for a combined 662 yards and five touchdowns.

“This is another opportunity to establish his legacy,” Dantonio said. “I think he will play well. He’s always played well on a big stage.”

MSU has been on both ends of wild, implausible finishes, in a defeat at Nebraska and a victory at Michigan. People who attribute both results to luck should bear in mind that the Spartans outgained Michigan 386-230. They were the better team in that game and operated at a high level against the league’s best defense.

The Buckeyes have been strong on defense, but they’re trailing both Michigan and Wisconsin statistically.

“This is not as perfect team,” Meyer said. “But I’ve never seen a perfect team.”

I like the Buckeyes to win because of their running game — Ezekiel Elliott, who has 15 straight 100-yard games, could make a move for the Heisman — and because this is the rare MSU defense that isn’t elite against the run. But picking Sparty to cover such a large spread is an easy call.

Most of us entered the season expecting Baylor and TCU to battle it out again for the Big 12 title. Instead, it’s Oklahoma State and Oklahoma that are in the best positions. But all four are involved in a pair of contests that will have the attention of the college football world. Together, No. 10 Baylor at No. 6 Oklahoma State (6:30 p.m., Fox-32) and No. 18 TCU at No. 7 Oklahoma (7 p.m., Ch. 7) will impact the top of the league standings and — in a big way — the playoff picture.

The Bears (8-1) have the edge in talent over the Cowboys, but do they have the motivation after last week’s damaging loss at home to Oklahoma? Boone Pickens Stadium will be an absolute madhouse, and that could rattle Baylor freshman quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Don’t forget, TCU senior star Trevone Boykin threw four interceptions this season in Stillwater. In a pick-’em game, I’ve got the Pokes.

At full strength, TCU (9-1) could give the Sooners (9-1) a run for their money anyplace, anytime. But the Frogs aren’t at full strength; Josh Doctson, perhaps the nation’s best receiver, is out and Boykin is a game-time decision. Even with Boykin on the field with a balky ankle, it’ll be an uphill battle. OU wins big.

The Pac-12 South was supposed to be better than this, but at least UCLA at No. 13 Utah (2:30 p.m., Fox-32) and No. 24 USC at No. 23 Oregon (2:30 p.m., ESPN) will go a long way toward deciding who finishes in the top spot. The Trojans (7-3) and Utes (8-2) are 5-2 apiece in conference play, with the Bruins (7-3) a game behind at 4-3 but still in control of their divisional destiny. Let’s not forget the Ducks (7-3) of the North, who are coming off a huge victory at Stanford.

Nobody’s more unpredictable than UCLA, a two-point underdog, but the Utes are tougher so I’m rolling with them, 27-21. And give me the four-point-underdog Trojans, who should be able to run the ball on Oregon, in an outright upset.

My favorite favorite: No. 12 Michigan (-4) at Penn State (11 a.m., Ch. 7). With the superior ability of their cover guys, the Wolverines (8-2) can have some fun with what they send at PSU quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The Nittany Lions (7-3) will play well defensively, but their offense should have a pretty part time of it.

My favorite underdog: Virginia Tech (+6) vs. No. 17 North Carolina (11 a.m., ESPN). Going strictly by the teams’ credentials, this is a mismatch; the Tar Heels (9-1) are picking one opponent after another apart. But the Hokies (5-5) have had two straight strong outings and — here’s the real reason — will be playing for ol’ Frank Beamer in his final home game. Emotions will be high to say the least.

Last week: 5-1 straight-up, 4-2 vs. the spread.

Season: 51-21-1 straight-up, 37-33-3 vs. the spread.



The facts: 11 a.m., ESPNews; 670-AM.

The records: Illinois 5-5, 2-4 Big Ten; Minnesota 4-6, 1-5 Big Ten.

The line: Gophers by 4½.

The story line: The Gophers entered the season expected to contend in the Big Ten West. In light of that, they’ve been exposed as pretenders — though they’ve also been highly competitive the last three weeks in losses to Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa. In order to get to a bowl game, Minnesota will have to pull a 2014 Illinois and win its last two games. The Illini still need a sixth victory, too, so this one’s awfully important on both sides. Can Illinois get the run game going? Can the Gophers light the fire again after so many disappointing Saturdays?

Greenberg’s pick: Minnesota, 34-20.


The facts: 2:30 p.m., BTN; 720-AM.

The records: Northwestern 8-2, 4-2 Big Ten; Wisconsin 8-2, 5-1 Big Ten.

The line: Badgers by 10½.

The story line: The teams are similar, no doubt. Both are strong in the running game. Both are highly capable on the defensive side of the ball. But the Badgers are much better at throwing the football. Defensively, they’ve been stingier against both the run and the pass. Taking things a step further, Wisconsin’s two losses were to Alabama by 18 and Iowa by four. Northwestern’s two losses were to Michigan by 38 and Iowa by 30. Why are the Wildcats ranked higher again? Oh, there’s snow — a bunch of it — in the Madison forecast. That’ll up the fun factor.

Greenberg’s pick: Wisconsin, 28-21.


The facts: 6:30 p.m., NBCSN; 890-AM.

The records: Boston College 3-7, 0-7 ACC; Notre Dame 9-1.

The line: Irish by 16½.

The story line: One has to take the Eagles at least somewhat seriously considering their defense is ranked — it’s true — No. 1 in the country, and by a considerable margin. Yet BC’s average yards allowed (236.5) doesn’t seem to be nearly the factor its average yards gained (276.6) is. You see, the Eagles also are ranked 128th — dead last — in the nation in offense. They’ve lost seven in a row and not scored more than two touchdowns in a game since early September. Translation: This one is over before it starts.

Greenberg’s pick: Notre Dame, 30-7.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

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