Playoff hopes on line for Spartans, Buckeyes

Ohio State's Jack Mewhort (74) during the second half of a Big Ten Conference championship NCAA college football game against Michigan State Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Ohio State's Jack Mewhort (74) during the second half of a Big Ten Conference championship NCAA college football game against Michigan State Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Mark Dantonio and Urban Meyer downplayed the rivalry between Michigan State and Ohio State this week.

Michigan, the coaches insisted, is the main rival for both. While that’s certainly true, the stakes of Saturday night’s game between the No. 7 Spartans and No. 13 Buckeyes speak for themselves.

“To say this is a rivalry game, that would diminish the rivalry that’s been here for 100 years,” Meyer said. “This is a great game because it’s two teams battling for first place.”

First place in the Big Ten’s East Division — and a possible spot in college football’s new four-team playoff. That’s what’s on the line, and there’s no need for extra incentive or ill will.

The rivalry talk has picked up because these same teams met in the Big Ten title game last year and they’ve dominated the conference the last few seasons. Michigan State has not lost to a Big Ten team since 2012. The Buckeyes are 20-0 in conference during the regular season under Meyer, but their loss to the Spartans in that 2013 title game stands out.

There’s a healthy respect between the two programs — with a hint of an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend sentiment. Dantonio didn’t dispute Meyer’s contention that Michigan is Ohio State’s main rival. He went a step further by saying Michigan State’s rivals are Michigan and Notre Dame. The Spartans don’t play the Irish this year.

“There are certain football teams that you start to begin to take shape as a rivalry as you play them,” Dantonio said. “I think it goes back and forth, but I think you need to have a very long history.”

Michigan State (7-1, 4-0) is No. 8 in the latest ranking from college football’s playoff committee, and a victory this weekend is necessary if the Spartans want to remain in serious consideration. Ohio State (7-1, 4-0) has even more ground to make up at No. 14, but a road victory over Michigan State would be a start.

Last year, it was the Spartans who denied the Buckeyes a spot in the BCS championship game by beating them for the Big Ten title. This week’s rematch also figures to eliminate the loser.

Who knows? A few more matchups of this magnitude, and maybe Michigan State vs. Ohio State really will become a major rivalry.

Here are a few things to watch during this Big Ten showdown:

BARRETT’S POISE: Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett has done a nice job replacing injured quarterback Braxton Miller for Ohio State, but this will be a major test. Miller completed only eight passes in last season’s loss to the Spartans — a game in which Ohio State actually ran the ball quite well.

BALANCE: Michigan State was carried by its defense for much of last year, but that had changed by the time the Spartans played Ohio State. Michigan State won that game 34-24, and both the Spartans and Buckeyes are averaging over 45 points a game this season.

With quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and wide receiver Tony Lippett, Michigan State has plenty of options offensively.

PASS RUSHERS: The Spartans’ defensive line includes standouts Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush. Ohio State’s front is anchored by Joey Bosa, who leads the Big Ten with 14 1/2 tackles for loss and 10 sacks.

UNDERDOGS: Ohio State is in an unusual position, with the Spartans favored by about a field goal in the days leading up to the game. The scenario is a bit different from last year, when the Buckeyes took a 24-game winning streak into the league title game against Michigan State.

Ohio State’s lone defeat this year — at home against Virginia Tech in September — was fairly surprising. A loss this weekend would not be a shock, but how tough will the Buckeyes be as slight underdogs?

THE WEATHER: Michigan State has never played a November night game at Spartan Stadium, but that will change on Saturday. Big Ten teams are used to cold weather, rain and even snow at this time of year, but the elements could be even tougher after dark.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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