Spartans drive and reach toward playoff, setting up Big Ten-SEC showdown with Crimson Tide

Michigan State running back LJ Scott (3) dives in for a touchdown during the fourth quarter against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015. The Spartans won, 16-13. (Kirthmon F. Dozier/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

By Dan Escalona

Michigan State and Iowa were preparing for a fourth-and-goal situation with a College Football Playoff spot at stake. However, before that could occur, LJ Scott reached across the goal line, driving the Spartans past the Hawkeyes and into the CFP.

In might be time to start referring to the play as “The Reach” — at least in Michigan State football lore.

The touchdown culminated a season-defining drive for the Spartans, and once again set up a New Year’s Eve Big Ten-Alabama showdown.

It was a typically ugly, rough-and-tumble tussle on Saturday in Indianapolis, yet in usual Michigan State fashion, the Spartans picked up the first downs they needed to make it to the Cotton Bowl.

The ugliness associated with Big Ten football wasn’t used to punish Michigan State: The selection committee vaulted them above the flashier Oklahoma in the rankings.

    Subscribe to our sports newsletter!

    Operating behind quarterback Baker Mayfield certainly makes the Sooners one of the most formidable squads of the final four. When comparing resumes, though, Michigan State — as the selection committee affirmed — have a slight edge.

    You can say that Michigan State got lucky against Michigan, benefited from bad weather conditions against Ohio State, played a rebuilding Oregon and beat an overachieving Iowa — and you will have a decent argument — but the Spartans still defeated four opponents in the top 15 and two in the top 10.

    Oklahoma defeated Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU, but at the same time it is important to realize that two of those teams — Baylor and TCU — were without their starting quarterbacks.

    This is not to diminish a championship-caliber Oklahoma, but the committee was correct in its assessment of both teams, choosing to rank the Spartans one slot above the Sooners.

    Other than for matchup reasons, rankings within the top four are not enormously consequential.

    For the neutral observer, the matchups the committee chose to give us could not be any better.

    One must wonder, though, if the selection committee intentionally moved up the Spartans to create yet another Big Ten-SEC gunfight at the OK Corral known as AT&T Stadium.

    But, hey, I won’t be complaining.

    The upcoming Alabama-Michigan State matchup promises to be either the day the Big Ten overtakes the SEC or the day the SEC maintains balance in the college football universe.

    From now until Dec. 31, expect to hear the Nick Saban-Mark Dantonio storyline so much you will start reciting it in your sleep.

    The media will undoubtedly play it up, but the similarities between both teams are impossible not to consider.

    Running back factory? Check. Consistently strong defense? Check. Great coaching mind? Check.

    Regardless of the obvious similarities, this semifinal matchup will come down to a duel between the Spartans’ seventh-ranked rushing defense and Heisman candidate Derrick Henry — the nation’s second-best running back in terms of yards per game.

    Beyond that, the second consecutive Big Ten-SEC playoff matchup represents the natural next step in the Big Ten’s resurgence.

    The Big Ten Renaissance may just be an overreaction to a national championship followed by another successful season in the conference. But Michigan State’s opportunity against Alabama, in addition to Iowa and Ohio State representing the conference in New Year’s Six bowls, can put to bed accusations of Midwestern overreaction.

    A record 10 Big Ten teams are represented in this season’s bowl schedule, creating even more opportunities for the conference to prove itself against the other Power 5 conferences.

    As I wrote back in August, along with many others, the Big Ten is well on its way to improving its unsavory reputation in recent years.

    The next few weeks will tell the nation if this conference is for real.

    So go forth and enjoy winter break — and all of the football.

    Dan is a senior in Media.

    [email protected]