The semifinal matchups in college football’s four-team playoff will not be staged until New Year’s Eve. But this weekend is a warm-up act.
For all practical purposes, Iowa, which is 12-0 and No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings, and No. 5 Michigan State (11-1) will be in playoff mode when they square off Saturday in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis.
The almost certainly gains a spot in the playoff, while the loser will receive a consolation prize of playing in the Rose Bowl or some other place sans national championship possibilities.
The Big Ten East champion Spartans are favored by 3½ points over the Hawkeyes. Michigan State is thinking big, according to coach Mark Dantonio.
“Our players want more,” Dantonio said this week. “They want it all.”
Despite its perfect record, Iowa has drawn scrutiny from many media members and handicappers due to its strength of schedule and lack of marquee wins. The Hawkeyes have faced only one team ranked in the top 30 of Jeff Sagarin’s rankings. The Hawkeyes are No. 14 in Sagarin’s rankings, which is in line with many respected handicappers’ power rankings.
While the Iowa resume lacks sizzle, Michigan State has three notable victories (Oregon, Michigan and Ohio State) which is primarily why the Spartans rate as the betting favorites.
Behind a healthy quarterback Connor Cook, the Spartans enter off an impressive win – a 55-16 thrashing of Penn State – and have covered five of their past six games.
Based on Dantonio’s recent big-game record and its late-season play, lay the points with Michigan State.
Four more plays for today (home team in CAPS):
* BAYLOR (-21) over Texas — The Bears are down to third-string quarterback Chris Johnson, but the Longhorns have significant injuries scattered throughout their offensive and defensive lineups.
Weighing most heavily against Texas is its ineptitude on the road. The Longhorns have no point-spread covers in four true road games this season, and the opposition has out-performed the spread by an average of 23 points in those contests.
* KANSAS STATE (+6) over West Virginia — There are whispers that this might be Bill Snyder’s last home game as the Wildcats’ coach. After all, he is 76 and deserves to enjoy the fruits of retirement at some point. The Wildcats have been hampered by a number of key injuries, most notably at quarterback.
However, Kansas State is a money-making 8-2 ATS as a home underdog since midway through the 2010 season, so the role is favorable for Snyder.
* WESTERN KENTUCKY (-7½) over Southern Mississippi — From 3-9 to 9-3 in Todd Monken’s third season as coach, Southern Mississippi has to be considered one of the most improved teams in college football. Western Kentucky, though, is an offensive machine at home, having averaged 48.6 points per home game over the past two seasons while covering eight of those 11 contests. The Hilltoppers got a positive jolt recently when tight end Tyler Higbee returned from a midseason knee injury.
* Air Force-SAN DIEGO STATE (Under 49) — For the unprepared and unfamiliar, Air Force’s option offense can wreak havoc. Run primarily by the service academies and a handful of other schools, it is rarely seen and difficult for scout teams to emulate. Aztecs coach Rocky Long, however, has schemed against the Falcons’ offense throughout much of his career, first at New Mexico and now at San Diego State. Three of the past four meetings in this series stayed under the total.
Last week: 1-4 against the spread
Paul Stone of VegasSportsAuthority.com is providing college football analysis for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.