It was brutal. It was mean and ugly. By god, it was beautiful.
Michigan State 16, Iowa 13. We’ll remember it always.
Big Sexy, Ohio State — the Big Ten’s banner program — wasn’t in Indianapolis on Championship Saturday. Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, those superstar coaches who get out of bed and step right into oceans of hype, were forgotten men.
Instead, we got the No. 4 Hawkeyes and the No. 5 Spartans in the most important Big Ten title game yet. With a College Football Playoff berth on the line, they delivered on a new-school moment with old-school hit-and-spit. For four titillating quarters — who needs touchdowns, anyway? — they smashed, they bashed and they entertained at a gigantic level.
The winning drive was one for the ages. Twenty-two plays. Eighty-two yards. Nearly nine minutes of game time. They’ll talk about that drive in East Lansing forever. They’ll talk about it in Iowa City, too, and everywhere else in Big Ten country.
On third-and-goal from inside the 1, true freshman LJ Scott was stonewalled by the Hawkeyes’ brilliant, tireless defensive front. Yet Scott wouldn’t be denied; while falling, he twisted his body, stretched out his arm and broke the plane with the ball. How fitting it was that his body didn’t end up in the end zone, too — the path to paydirt was too arduous to end on that easy of a note.
“You live for moments like this,” Scott said, “and this is what we worked all year for. You work hard to get to this spot.”
The spot for Iowa (12-1) could be the Rose Bowl, not a bad destination at all. For the Spartans (12-1), it’s the sweetness of the final four.
Clemson, champion of the ACC, surely will retain its No. 1 ranking when the playoff committee begins to unveil its final list late Sunday morning. If Michigan State moves into the No. 4 spot, it’ll get the 13-0 Tigers and spectacular quarterback Deshaun Watson next. If the committee puts the Spartans up at No. 3, dropping Oklahoma to No. 4, then it’ll be SEC champion Alabama for Mark Dantonio’s squad of clutch believers.
Either way, Dantonio and the Spartans will be underdogs. They’ve played that role before, with great results. Two seasons ago, they upset Ohio State in the league title game to get to the Rose Bowl, where they edged favored Stanford. Last season, the Spartans stormed back to beat favored Baylor in an instant-classic Cotton Bowl. In 2015 — playing without star quarterback Connor Cook — they survived a trip to Columbus and pulled off a season-shifting upset of the Buckeyes.
This is what they do.
Michigan State is back at full strength and threatening to “reach higher,” as Dantonio often puts it, than some thought this team could.
“We started out today wanting to go a little bit farther than we went last year,” Dantonio said. “We’re 12-1 and we’re marching. We’re marching.”
There’s still a long way to go. But if you haven’t learned by now never to doubt Sparty, you’re just not paying attention.
GAMES OF THE WEEK/WEAK
Week: No. 1 Clemson 45, No. 10 North Carolina 37. Now this is what the top-ranked team in the country is supposed to look like. After a tight first half, the Tigers (13-0) exploded on UNC (11-2), leaving no doubt which squad the playoff committee will award the No. 1 seed. An ACC title was a huge step, but these Tigers want the whole thing.
Week: No. 2 Alabama 29, No. 18 Florida 15. Seven first downs. A whopping 180 total yards. Barely 16 minutes of possession. The Gators (10-3) — who scored one of their two touchdowns on a punt return, and the other one in garbage time — came in with a bad offense. And they exited having been on the business end of an utter beatdown by Nick Saban’s hellacious defense in the SEC title game. In a down year for the league, the Crimson Tide (12-1) have more than held up their end of the bargain.
Week: No. 7 Stanford 41, No. 20 USC 22. The Trojans (8-5) charged back from an early double-digit hole to take a 16-13 lead in the third quarter, but from there it was all Stanford (11-2) in what had to be the Cardinal’s best performance of the season. The Pac-12 title and a spot in the Rose Bowl will have to be enough — the playoff thing isn’t happening.
Weak: Texas 23, No. 12 Baylor 17. In less than a month, Baylor’s season went from incredible to unspeakable. The Bears (9-3) — down to their No. 4 quarterback after Chris Johnson got hurt in the first half — had zero ability to pass the football, and that allowed the down-and-out Longhorns (5-7) to avoid coughing up the last of what had been a 20-0 lead. Baylor lost a spot in the Sugar Bowl, to boot.
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford: The most dynamic player in the country was simply spectacular, rushing for 207 yards and a touchdown, catching three balls for 101 yards and a score and throwing for an 11-yard TD. Heisman Trophy ceremony, here he comes.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson: The best signal-caller in the land was every bit as good as McCaffrey. Ever the dual threat, Watson piled up a combined 420 yards and five touchdowns with his arm and his legs. He’ll be in New York, too.
Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: The baddest back the college game has seen in some time did what only he does — 44 tougher-than-tough carries, 189 yards and a touchdown against a premier defense. Thanks for coming, Watson and McCaffrey, but we already know who’s winning the Heisman this year.
Up: No. 19 Houston. The Cougars knocked off No. 22 Temple 24-13 in the first-ever AAC title game to get to 12-1 and sew up the Group of Five’s spot in one of the top four non-playoff bowl games. Tom Herman, take a bow.
Down: the SEC East. Florida played Stone Age football Saturday. Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina all are at difficult crossroads. The divisional gap in this league has never been wider.
Down and out: the Pac-12. It can’t feel too good to be the only major conference without a playoff team, can it?
• Not surprisingly, there is great hue and cry for an expanded playoff — as though eight is a magic number, or 16, or whatever. Yet this four-team business seems to be working quite well.
Really, is there a team left out this season that has a criminal case against the college football gods? Don’t think so. Besides, the frustration being felt at Stanford and Ohio State and anywhere else is — think about it — great for the game. It’s all just more fuel and passion, the good-or-bad kind that drives the college game and makes its regular season so much more dramatic than the NFL’s.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.