Believe in Iowa? Maybe … but not really. Spartans are the pick.
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The beauty of Championship Week in college football is that we don’t know — truly, still — what all we have with some of these teams. We might think we’ve got a locked-in read on all the contenders, but we don’t. There’s just no way to be sure without the evidence from the biggest Saturday of the season.
Consider the last two Big Ten championship games; they are perfect examples.
In 2013, Ohio State was ranked No. 2 and — 24-0 under second-year coach Urban Meyer — seemingly unbeatable by a league opponent. But Michigan State proved tougher than the Buckeyes in Indianapolis. By the time the Spartans outfought Stanford in the Rose Bowl, there was no doubt they’d been stronger than OSU all along. Most of us just had to see it to believe it.
And then in 2014 — OK, embarrassed to admit, but I picked Wisconsin to beat Ohio State in Indy. Final score: Buckeyes 59, Badgers 0. But the Badgers actually were the favorites in that game, as OSU was preparing to break out a No. 3 quarterback in Cardale Jones. Who would’ve imagined at that time that the Buckeyes would go on to win the first playoff?
So here we are, in Year 2 of the playoff, and No. 4 Iowa vs. No. 5 Michigan State (7 p.m., Fox-32) is a ticket to the final four for the winner the Big Ten title game at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Hawkeyes are 12-0, but the one-loss Spartans are favored by 3½. Clearly, the world hasn’t fully bought into this Iowa team. Is that a mistake?
That’s what we’ll learn Saturday night. Iowa is physical, confident and clutch. Quarterback C.J. Beathard has been better than advertised throughout the season, and Kirk Ferentz’s defense dominated in key victories over Northwestern and Wisconsin.
“We’re two programs that like to play physical football,” Iowa offensive lineman Austin Blythe said. “They’re going to play the full 60. … It’s just two really good programs that respect each other and understand what they bring to the table and understand that it’s going to be a 60-minute fight.”
And that’s why I can’t help but like the Spartans in this one: They’ve been in — and won — many more of those heavyweight fights in recent years. This season, they had to claw past Oregon, Michigan and Ohio State. The victory at OSU seems to have unlocked something in Mark Dantonio’s team, judging by how it played in a 55-16 destruction of Penn State last weekend.
“They come to play every game,” Dantonio said of his squad.
One last point: As solid as Beathard has been, he’s no Connor Cook. Sparty has the guy I’d want under center with the game on the line. MSU takes it by a touchdown.
Other league title picks:
American Athletic: No. 22 Temple (+6) at No. 19 Houston (11 a.m., Ch. 7). The Cougars (11-1) were relentless offensively in last week’s must-have victory over Navy. The Owls (10-2) have a defense that presents far bigger challenges. Home-field advantage probably tips the scales here. Houston by a field goal.
Conference USA: Southern Miss (+7½) at Western Kentucky (11 a.m., ESPN2). Both offenses are absolutely flying; the passing games alone average over 700 yards combined on the season. The better defense, though, belongs to the underdog Golden Eagles. A big fourth-quarter stop keys the upset.
Southeastern: No. 2 Alabama (-18) vs. No. 18 Florida (3 p.m., Ch. 2). The Gators were a different team before suspended quarterback Will Grier was replaced by Treon Harris. It’s not all on Harris’ shoulders, but this offense is seriously bad — and there’s no way a one-dimensional squad can go chin-to-chin with the Crimson Tide right now. Florida’s defense will keep in interesting for a while, but by the end the Georgia Dome will be all crimson. Tide 30, Gators 9.
Mountain West: Air Force (+6) at San Diego State (6:30 p.m., ESPN2). The Aztecs are 8-0 in league play and won all eight games by at least 14 points. Let’s make it nine for nine.
Pac-12: No. 7 Stanford (-4) vs. No. 20 USC (6:45 p.m., ESPN). It has been 11 weeks since the Cardinal (10-2) rolled into L.A. and beat favored USC 41-31, changing their story after a terrible opening performance at Northwestern. This isn’t a great Stanford team, but it has continued to improve since that September night at the Coliseum. The same can’t be said of the Trojans (8-4). Stanford by 10 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
Atlantic Coast: No. 1 Clemson (-5) vs. No. 10 North Carolina (7 p.m., Ch. 7). The playoff committee has disrespected the Tar Heels (11-1), whose offense, led by quarterback Marquise Williams and running back Elijah Wood, has been putting it on everybody. UNC hasn’t run up against a defense as explosive up front as Clemson’s, though. Shaq Lawson, B.J. Goodson and Ben Boulware will be up in Williams’ grill. And the Tigers (12-0) will have the best player on the field in quarterback Deshaun Watson anyway. A 34-24 coronation for Clemson, which locks down the No. 1 seed for the playoff.
Last week: 6-5 straight-up, 6-5 vs. the spread.
Season: 61-30-1 straight-up, 47-41-3 vs. the spread.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg