November Is For Contenders
Nov. 2, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
College football doesn't need a playoff. It already has one. Michigan State will take on Minnesota in first-round action on Saturday at noon in Spartan Stadium.
OK, technically it's still the regular season. However, with the creation of a Big Ten Championship Game that automatically sends the winner to the BCS, it feels like one-and-done time in East Lansing.
"We can't lose anymore," said running back Le'Veon Bell, who has a MSU-high six touchdowns. "If we want to go to the Big Ten Championship Game, we have to win out. We just have to worry about winning, and once the end of November comes around, we'll see where we're at."
Coach Mark Dantonio dusted off the "November is for Contenders" marketing campaign for the team earlier in the week.
It's a departure from the typical "take-'em-one-game-at-a-time" coach-speak, but it's not like the situation is a well-guarded mystery. Michigan State (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) veered onto a rougher road to Indianapolis when it lost at Nebraska, 24-3, and dropped into a three-way tie atop the Legends Division with the Cornhuskers (7-1, 3-1) and Michigan (7-1, 3-1).
Might as well turn all the cards face-up. MSU's objectives will remain in play as long as it beats the Golden Gophers, wins at Iowa, defeats Indiana in the home finale and closes out the schedule with a victory at Northwestern.
"It is kinda odd to look at it like that," Bell said. "We've still got to take them one game at a time, but we know we have to win all the games we have left. But for now, we just want to go 1-0 this week."
The Spartans have every reason to be comfortable with taking the blinders off and looking at the big picture because they've played well with the pressure of having their goals on the line.
Michigan State is 9-3 in the final month of the regular season under Dantonio and was in the conference title hunt going into the last game of 2008 and again last year when the Spartans wrapped up a share of first place with their third consecutive victory.
The Spartans were 2-12 in regular-season games played after Oct. 31 from 2003-06, but it's not like Dantonio has programmed a response that's triggered by turning a page on the calendar.
In fact, said defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, "we just try to be consistent. Everybody goes out with the same focus to try to get better and make plays. You can see it in this team, compared to some in the past. A lot of guys are able to accept the challenge. A lot of guys are going out there and having fun. We have a new unsung hero every week and everybody's willing to go out and lay it all on the line. You always want to build up and play your best games late and have your best performances that give you a chance to play for better bowl games.
"We're still shooting for the Rose Bowl, and everything of that nature is still on the line."
Instead of a back-against-the-wall mentally, the Spartans want to sustain the attitude that produced a four-game win streak - including consecutive victories over Ohio State, then-No. 11 Michigan and then-No. 4 Wisconsin - earlier in the season.
"It's definitely a mind-set," said fifth-year senior tight end Brian Linthicum. "Last year, we had a great November and finished strong. Even the year before, we struggled early and needed a couple wins in November to keep our season alive, and we accomplished that. It's starting to get cold, and people are nicked up. The mental strength of the team is what's going to carry us through November.
"Even though it's cold, we're not coming out here just to get through practice. We're coming out here knowing that we have the athleticism and all the capabilities to win. It's just a matter of putting the work in to give ourselves a chance to be successful."
Regular-season games carry more weight in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision than any other major American sports entity, college or professional, and critics of the playoff system contend it would diminish the importance of regular-season games.
Look no further than the Big Ten for evidence.
In addition to MSU playing to advance to a so-called second-round game, Michigan will be trying to stave off elimination at the hands of Iowa while Nebraska will be in survive-and-advance mode at home against Northwestern. If the Wolverines and Cornhuskers win and then beat Illinois and Penn State, respectively, they'll meet in an elimination showdown in Ann Arbor.
The playoff scenario isn't just happening in the Big Ten. Saturday night's Southeastern Conference matchup between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama is being billed as a de facto BCS playoff semifinal with the winner gaining the inside track to play in the National Championship Game.
It's as if the Spartans have simply moved out of the double-elimination phase of the season.
"We've played a tough stretch these last four games and it's going to be a tough stretch these next four," Dantonio said. "That's just the way it is in November. But that's our outlook. We're tied for the lead in the Legends Division and if we win out, good things can happen.
"Either we're in the (Big Ten) championship game, or we're sitting there 10-2. That has to be our goal."
Senior co-captain Kirk Cousins expressed MSU's mission in a more visceral way.
"I said to the guys (on Tuesday), the thought of sitting on my couch in my apartment and watching that championship game on Dec. 3 instead of being there would just be awful," he said. "It would rip my heart out."
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