Woo-hoo! The 12-0 Iowa Hawkeyes are in the 2015 Big Ten Championship Game -- their first-ever appearance in that contest. So what do you need to know about the game and Iowa's opponent, the Michigan State Spartans? Glad you asked.
WHO: Michigan State Spartans (11-1, 7-1 B1G)
WHEN: 7:17 PM Central; Saturday, December 5, 2015
WHERE: Lucas Oil Stadium; Indianapolis, IN
ONLINE: via Fox Sports Go (TV) and Tunein Radio (audio-only)
MOBILE: via Fox Sports Go (iOS and Android)
RADIO: via Hawkeye Radio Network, KRUI (89.7 FM), Sirius channel 135, XM channel 195
TV COMMENTATORS: Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt
ODDS: Michigan State -4
HOW DID THEY GET HERE?
Michigan State went 11-1, including an 8-0 start to the season. The Spartans were ranked as highly as #2 in the nation (Weeks 4 and 5) before some unimpressive victories caused them to drop slightly in the polls. MSU recorded one of the Big Ten's signature wins of the non-conference portion of the schedule by edging Oregon (then ranked #7) in East Lansing, 31-28.
Sparty began Big Ten play with several close scrapes -- including a narrow 24-21 win over Purdue in which the Boilermakers had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead with three minutes to go (although they would have needed to go 80 yards to do so) and a 31-24 win over Rutgers in which MSU trailed at halftime (14-10) and scored the go-ahead touchdown with under a minute to go. (That was also the game where Rutgers' QB infamously spiked the ball on fourth down.)
Michigan State then had one of the most wildly improbable wins of this season -- or any other season -- when they beat Michigan on this stupefying play.
That play never ceases to be astounding. MSU followed that win with a 52-26 win over Indiana that was far closer than the scoreline would suggest -- Indiana missed a chance to take a 29-28 lead (via 42-yard field goal) in the third quarter and trailed just 31-26 in the fourth quarter before a handful of late touchdowns (two of which came on short fields) turned the game into a blowout.
MSU's close game luck ran out in their next game, a controversial 39-38 loss to Nebraska in Lincoln. Nebraska scored the game-winning touchdown on a play that seemed like it shouldn't have counted because the receiver went out of bounds (without being forced out) and and came back in to catch the touchdown. That said, Michigan State also had a 38-26 lead with four minutes to go in the fourth quarter, and one shaky call doesn't totally explain that defensive meltdown.
Sparty followed that loss with a workmanlike 24-7 win over Maryland and then recorded their signature win of the season -- a stunning 17-14 win over Ohio State in Columbus (while being led by two back-up quarterbacks) that put them in the driver's seat in the Big Ten East. Michigan State closed out the season with an impressive 55-16 rout over Penn State that included two defensive touchdowns and one of the best FAT GUY TOUCHDOWNS of the year.
WHO'S COMIN' TO THIS CIT-AY?
Rece, Kirk, Lee, Desmond and the whole ESPN College Gameday crew, that's who.
It will be the first time College GameDay has been at a game involving Iowa since 2006, when GameDay descended on Iowa City for a match-up between #1 Ohio State and #13 Iowa. That game... could have gone better for the Hawkeyes. (EDIT: I am informed that GameDay was actually in Happy Valley for Iowa's big win over Penn State in 2009, so that was the last time GameDay was at a game involving Iowa, not the 2006 OSU game.)
WHAT'S AT STAKE?
A lot! First and foremost, an outright Big Ten championship is at stake on Saturday night. Kirk Ferentz has done many great things at Iowa and made all kinds of history here -- like having two 8-0 conference regular seasons (no one else has even one) and leading Iowa to its first-ever 12-0 regular season -- but he's never won an outright Big Ten championship at Iowa. In 2002, Iowa went 8-0 -- but so did Ohio State. (In a world with a championship game, that deadlock would have been settled and we would have found out who was the One True Champion back then, but alas, we had to settle for a shared title instead.) In 2004, Iowa and Michigan shared the title with matching 7-1 conference records. There actually was a head-to-head tiebreaker in play that year and since Michigan had beaten Iowa earlier in the year, they earned a trip to the Rose Bowl. But Iowa still got a trophy and went down in the record books as Big Ten co-champions.
Iowa hasn't earned an outright Big Ten championship since that magical 1985 season, when Iowa went 7-1 in league play. Prior to that, Iowa hadn't had an outright Big Ten title since Forest Evashevski's 1956 and 1958 teams did so. It would cap off a truly remarkable regular season to add an outright Big Ten title to the list of accomplishments this season.
There's one trophy on the line Saturday night -- and there's also an opportunity to win another even more prestigious trophy also on the line. The winner of Saturday's game will not only win the Big Ten championship, they're virtually assured of being one of the four teams in the College Football Playoff. Nothing is assured, of course, but it would beggar belief for a 13-0 Big Ten champion Iowa squad to be omitted from the playoff field, especially given how favorably the playoff committee has looked upon Iowa to this point. It's hard to believe that a win over #5 Michigan State would make them like Iowa any less. Michigan State may not be quite as much of a sure thing to make the playoff field if they win on Saturday night -- that one loss on their resume introduces a bit of doubt, particularly since it came against a team with a losing record (lol Nebraska) -- but the overall quality of their resume would be exceptionally difficult to deny. They would have wins over two likely top-10 teams in the final CFP rankings (Iowa and Ohio State), as well as two more teams in the 11-20 range (Michigan and Oregon), with three of those games coming on the road (Michigan, Ohio State) or at a neutral site (Iowa). No one else in contention for the final College Football Playoff spots would have a comparable resume. A spot in the national title picture would be rarefied air for both Iowa and Michigan State.
For Iowa, there's also a chance for some validation. 12-0 is 12-0 and no amount of braying from national pundits can take away the significance -- or the satisfaction -- of that accomplishment for Iowa. And while Iowa's schedule has become a tiresome talking point, it's true that Iowa hasn't yet had a chance this season to take down a top team. Saturday night represents a chance to change that -- a win over Michigan State would provide Iowa with a victory over a high-quality opponent and provide additional evidence that Iowa is "for real," or that their 12-0 season was not just a fluke (as if teams go 12-0 all the time because it's so easy to do so). A win over Sparty wouldn't quiet all the hand-wringing about Iowa, but it would provide a satisfying response to the BUT IOWA AIN'T PLAYED NOBODY crowd.
Iowa. Michigan State. Big Ten Championship Game. Let's do this.