(AP) – Iowa took a lot of grief this season for not playing the top teams in the Big Ten East.
The Hawkeyes will get the best one Saturday – likely with a trip to the College Football Playoff on the line.
No. 4 Iowa and No. 5 Michigan State face off in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis in the biggest-ever matchup between the programs.
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The Hawkeyes (12-0, 8-0) sealed their spot in Indy with a game to spare. The Spartans (11-1, 7-1) clinched the East with a 55-16 rout of Penn State this weekend.
''This was our first goal, to get to this game,'' Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Sunday in a teleconference.
Saturday's winner is all but guaranteed a shot at the four-team playoff, especially after Notre Dame lost to Stanford and dropped out of the running. If Clemson or Alabama lose this weekend, the Big Ten's hold on a playoff spot will only tighten.
''I just can't imagine whoever wins this ball game not being in the playoffs,'' Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. ''But no matter what happens, it won't diminish what both teams have accomplished.''
Iowa finished its regular season unbeaten for the first time since 1922. Though the Hawkeyes didn't play the toughest of schedules, they beat the likes of Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Northwestern to put Ferentz in position for his fourth conference coach of the year award.
''We've never ever had any doubt in Kirk Ferentz. He's an unbelievable coach. An unbelievable man to play for,'' tight end Henry Krieger Coble said. ''We're just doing a little better job carrying out the plan.''
Michigan State wasn't far behind. The Spartans only lost at Nebraska 39-38 thanks in part to a questionable call at the end of the game.
Recent wins at Ohio State and against the Nittany Lions have made Michigan State a slight favorite.
''They're undefeated. They're 12-0,'' Spartans quarterback Connor Cook said. ''They've beaten some really good opponents, pretty good teams, this year. I don't know what's going on in their locker room. I don't know what they're talking about. But I'm sure they have similar thoughts that go through their head that we've had.''
Michigan State-Iowa is a blue-collar matchup between programs that still have to fight a bit for recognition and respect.
''We're two programs that like to play physical football,'' Iowa offensive lineman Austin Blythe said. ''They're going to play the full 60, and they'll take it into overtime if they have to. Just two really good programs that respect each other and understand what they bring to the table and understand that it's going to be a 60-minute fight.''
The spread offense craze never really caught on in East Lansing and Iowa City. The Spartans do have an outstanding quarterback in Cook, who has thrown for 2,730 yards with 24 touchdowns against four interceptions, but despite his pro potential and Michigan State's fine season, he doesn't appear to have gotten much traction in the Heisman Trophy race.
Iowa is led by quarterback C.J. Beathard, whose clutch play is one of the biggest reasons the Hawkeyes are in a playoff position.
Senior running back Jordan Canzeri is fifth in the Big Ten in rushing with 964 yards and ran for 140 on 17 attempts in last Friday's 28-20 win over Nebraska. Iowa rushed for 203.7 yards per game, third in the conference.
The Spartans are making their third appearance in the Big Ten title game in five years, but they rarely make major news on national signing day. Iowa's 2015 recruiting class was ranked 51st in the nation by Scout.com, right between Syracuse and Rutgers. Maybe this year's run will help the Hawkeyes attract more top prospects, but it's hard to envision them recruiting the kinds of classes that routinely end up at Ohio State or Alabama.
The Spartans have reached 11 wins for the fifth time in six years, and Dantonio says in some ways, he tried to pattern Michigan State's system after Iowa's.
''They come to play every game,'' Dantonio said. ''Iowa, they always had a workmanlike attitude. They always went to work, they always played people tough, they always seemed to win consistently. They were very well-coached, their players played very firm up front on both sides of the ball. That's who we wanted to be.''
This will be a matchup that re-ignites one of the Big Ten's most underrated rivalries. Iowa has beaten Dantonio's teams twice in double overtime since 2007. The Hawkeyes also won on the last play of the game in East Lansing during a 9-0 start in 2009 and ruined Michigan State's Rose Bowl hopes in 2010. But the Spartans won the last meeting 26-14 in 2013 in what Ferentz called Cook's ''coming out party.''