Oregon game looms large for Spartans

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
9:00
AM ET
When Michigan State Spartans athletic director Mark Hollis first told football coach Mark Dantonio about his plan to schedule a home-and-home series with the Oregon Ducks, Dantonio did not wrestle his boss to the ground, scream obscenities or start updating his résumé.

As Hollis recalls, Dantonio simply smirked, shrugged his shoulders and said, "Why not?"

The reasons not to schedule Oregon -- especially at eardrum-splitting Autzen Stadium, where the Spartans go in Week 2 -- of course include the Ducks' tornadic offense, their dominance at home (92-17 since 1997) and the Big Ten's historic struggles in Pac-12 country. So why would Michigan State saddle itself with such a challenging matchup so early in the season?

"I've never really said, 'Oh, no, I don’t want to play those guys,'" Dantonio told ESPN.com. "I just feel like, if you're going to be a champion, you have to be willing to take on all comers."

[+] EnlargeMark Hollis
AP Photo/Al GoldisMichigan State athletic director Mark Hollis has upgraded the football schedule with the College Football Playoff in mind, beginning this season with a road game at Oregon.
The Spartans arrived in the ranks of the elite in January by beating Pac-12 champ Stanford in the Rose Bowl, capping a 12-1 season. Now they get a chance to prove they can stay there with another trip to the West Coast on Sept. 6. This early-season showdown of conference heavyweights -- Oregon is ranked No. 4 in the ESPN preseason power rankings; Michigan State is No. 7 -- carries key implications for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

"If we play well in that game, it can definitely bounce us up to the four-team playoff," Spartans defensive end Shilique Calhoun said.

The playoff was exactly what Hollis had in mind when he added Oregon to the schedule in March 2012. He also signed future home-and-home deals around the same time with Miami (Fla.) and Alabama, the latter of which has since been canceled. Hollis said arranging the Oregon series was made easier by his close relationship with Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens; the two became friendly when Mullens was at Kentucky and the Spartans and Wildcats put together a basketball series.

"We don't want to be stupid in our scheduling, but at the same time, we were anticipating the playoff system and anticipating the strength-of-schedule [component]," Hollis told ESPN.com. "As we were having these conversations, it seemed right, it fit right. They're a top-five program, and with us coming off a Rose Bowl championship, kind of by freak of luck this turned into a pretty nice game."

(The fact that both schools are Nike-sponsored and wear green doesn't hurt, either. "It's always nice to see Phil [Knight]," Hollis joked, "even though I'm sure he'll be on the other sideline.")

Michigan State sees little downside to the game. Even if the Spartans lose in Eugene, as long as they are reasonably competitive, they would have plenty of time to rebound and still win a Big Ten title. They recall last year, when they lost at Notre Dame but went on to capture their final 10 games and finish No. 3 in the polls.

"It’s not an end-all either way," Dantonio said. "It’s going to be a measuring stick for us -- where are we at, what do we have to do, who are we? It will give us a little more of a sense of identity early in season."

The on-field matchup itself is incredibly intriguing.

Oregon, with its fast-paced, no-huddle spread offense, leads the nation in scoring the past four seasons combined at 47 points per game. In that same time span, Michigan State's ferocious defense ranks fourth in the FBS in points allowed and third in yards allowed. The Spartans finished No. 2 in total defense in 2013; the Ducks were No. 2 in total offense.

Michigan State has fielded a top-10 defense in each of the past three years, but it is replacing six key starters from last year's unit.

"This should give us an early indication of how things can go for us, if our team is tight-knit or if we have loose ends," Calhoun said. "It will be nice to see how they play and see if we match up with them."

The wise guys say it will be difficult, as Michigan State opened as nearly a two-touchdown underdog in the betting lines. That's not much respect for a defending Rose Bowl champ.

"We’re used to it," Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said. "We were underdogs last year against Ohio State and against Stanford. So we're used to playing with a chip on our shoulders, and we're not going to let that affect us."

Regardless of the outcome, the game should provide significant national buzz for the Spartans, as well as heavy local interest. Hollis said the school received more than 8,000 requests for its 3,000-ticket allotment to the game. Oregon's return visit to East Lansing on Sept. 12, 2015, will be a scalper's dream.

"For the general fan, it's one of those games that, no matter who you cheer for, this is one you want to watch," Hollis said.

Dantonio will make sure his team doesn't put too much focus on this one game, as Michigan State must first deal with its opener on Aug. 29 against Jacksonville State, not to mention the 10 regular-season contests after Oregon. But it's impossible to ignore the magnitude of what awaits in Week 2.

"It's been in the back of our minds all offseason," Cook said. "If we win, it will be a statement game that can turn a lot of heads, and it could put us on the way to a national championship."

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PAC-12 SCOREBOARD

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