Why Michigan State can win the playoff: Built to beat anyone

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook will have an experienced O-line and a stacked defense to work with.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: FOX Sports college football columnists Stewart Mandel and Bruce Feldman think a handful of teams have a legitimate shot at hoisting the College Football Playoff trophy this season. This week, they’ll make a case for each of those squads.

MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS

1. What we like: Start with a proven stud QB. Connor Cook is big, athletic, smart and seasoned. The 6-4, 220-pound senior is 16-1 against Big Ten teams and 3-0 as a starter in postseason games. Cook has shown he can read defenses and get deep into his progressions and can also adeptly handle pressure. According to Pro Football Focus, he threw 16 TDs and just one INT when blitzed. Another plus for him and the Spartans is they return four starters on the O-line, anchored by center Jack Allen and OT Jack Conklin. Junior Josiah Price is one of the Big Ten’s best tight ends.

MSU is also loaded on the D-line, sparked by All-American DE Shilique Calhoun and gifted DTs Lawrence Thomas and Malik McDowell. Mark Dantonio also can rotate a bunch of athletic big bodies in along the front, which figures to be the best one the Spartans have had in years. When you can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the trenches — and have a big-time QB — you can beat anyone. Better still, Dantonio knows how to win big games. He’s 4-1 in his past five games against top 5-ranked opponents.

2. What concerns us: Well, they not only have to play defending national champion Ohio State, but they have to face the Buckeyes in Columbus. MSU also has two big losses to overcome. One is stellar defensive guru Pat Narduzzi, who left to become the head coach at Pitt. And the second loss just happened, when top linebacker Ed Davis was lost for the season because of a knee injury.

Under Narduzzi, the Spartans were one of just two schools, along with Florida, to rank among the FBS top 10 in total defense the past four seasons. His replacements running the defense, Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel, though, did learn under him and do have plenty to work with.

One thing MSU’s new DCs won’t have (besides losing three good DBs from last year’s team) is Davis, a sideline-to-sideline playmaker for a very aggressive defense. Dantonio said he’s probably as good a linebacker as he’s had at State. Sophomore Chris Frey will step in. He’s tough and solid, but not just as athletic. With a Week Two game against an explosive Oregon attack, MSU’s defense will miss Davis’ athleticism. And they really may miss it when they visit the Buckeyes.

3. What would the committee think? Run the table, which would include wins over both teams that played in last year’s title game (including a victory that would be at The Shoe over OSU) and the Spartans are a lock to get a spot in the playoff — no matter how down the Big Ten West may be. Beat the Ducks but lose in Columbus, and an 11-1 would be iffy for the Big Ten to hope to get two teams in. What would boost the Spartans’ hopes in that case would be if Oregon went on to win out and capture the Pac-12 at 12-1. It’d also be nice if any two of these three — Nebraska, Penn State or Michigan — were better than most expected and could be Top 25 teams. 11-1 with only one win over a Top 25 team might not be a strong enough case for the Spartans.

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