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Michigan State has everything to gain Saturday against Ohio State

The Spartans come to town hoping to once again spoil Ohio State’s hopes of a conference championship.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

“We have a lot to lose. We’re in control right now, so we do have a lot to lose. And we want to stay in control.”

-Mark Dantonio, via Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press

The Michigan State Spartans have made quite the comeback in 2017. After going 3-9 last season--including 1-8 in the Big Ten--Sparty has rebounded to a very respectable 7-2 record, with its only losses to No. 3 Notre Dame and Northwestern in triple overtime. Now, after defeating Penn State last weekend and with the Buckeyes falling to the Hawkeyes in Iowa City, Michigan State finds itself in control of its own destiny. And while the Spartans are 16-point underdogs to Ohio State, their position is not a new one.

Michigan State raced up the College Football Playoff rankings this week, moving up a dozen spots to No. 12. Ohio State, meanwhile, found itself trailing the Spartans at No. 13. Now, in a late-season matchup with conference championship implications, Michigan State finds itself in a similar spot to 2015, when the Spartans came to Columbus as double-digit underdogs and spoiled Ohio State’s perfect season. The Buckeyes redeemed themselves somewhat last season in a 17-16 slugfest win in East Lansing, but Dantonio’s squad always manages to play Ohio State too close for comfort (Ohio State was favored by three touchdowns in that matchup).

Dantonio, obviously, has strong ties to the Buckeyes, and Michigan State’s staunch defense is a reflection of Dantonio’s time as defensive coordinator under Jim Tressel at Ohio State. Since the departure of Tressel, with whom Dantonio stays in contact, the series between the two teams has been generally balanced compared to others in the Big Ten. In fact, Dantonio holds a 2-3 record versus Urban Meyer--the best record of any conference foe.

Still, the 16-point spread seems somewhat excessive, given the narrow margins of victory either team has grown familiar with in recent iterations of the rivalry. In fact, the last six games have been decided by an average of five points.

“Obviously, he’s one of the top kick returners in America. He’s such a tough guy and good kid. Any time he’s not out there, it hurts, like with any player.”

-Urban Meyer, via Nicholas Piotrowicz, The Blade

There is good news for the Buckeyes ahead of their matchup Saturday with Michigan State. Wide receiver Parris Campbell, who suffered an undisclosed injury against Penn State Oct. 28, has been cleared to return to football activities, and was listed as the top H-back in this week’s depth chart. Campbell’s injury came early on in the game on a first-quarter kickoff return, and the junior wideout did not come back to the field for the rest of the game. He also did not travel with the team to Iowa City last week. Wide receiver K.J. Hill took over kickoff duties in Campbell’s absence.

Prior to his injury, Campbell led the Buckeyes in receiving, and has recorded 29 catches for 410 yards and two touchdowns thus far this season playing in an H-back role. He has also averaged nearly 37 yards on nine kickoff returns on the year which, despite the low volume, is one of the best return averages in the country. And, owing to his versatility, he has accrued a rushing touchdown as well this season. It was a tall order to replace the departed Curtis Samuel, but Campbell has stepped up well this season and was missed Saturday.

The Buckeyes certainly missed a degree of offensive explosiveness versus Iowa, so having Campbell back against Michigan State’s stringent defense will help. Along with junior wideout Johnnie Dixon, who leads the team in receiving touchdowns with eight, and sophomore K.J. Hill, whose 417 receiving yards now lead the team, J.T. Barrett does have options at receiver (especially compared to previous seasons) and will need to be able to capitalize on these against the Spartans. In a perfect fourth-quarter finish, Barrett was able to find his receivers for the big play versus Penn State, but was unable to make those connections last week against the Hawkeyes.

“That may seem strange, but realize this:Vegas, which also uses computers, likes the Buckeyes even more. Ohio State is a 15.5 point favorite over the Spartans.”

-Bill Connelly, SBNation

Technically, the Big Ten East race is in a state of chaos following Ohio State’s loss to Iowa. In reality, it is a two-horse race between Ohio State and Michigan State, with the winner to be determined on the field Saturday in Ohio Stadium. Five of the seven teams in the east still have a legitimate shot at the title, with Michigan, Penn State and Rutgers--yes, Rutgers--rounding out the group. Only Maryland and Indiana have been mathematically eliminated from contention. Granted, Rutgers’ odds are sitting at 0.0004 percent. The Scarlet Knights’ odds increase to 0.3 percent if the Buckeyes win Saturday, and go to 0.002 percent if Michigan State prevails.

Ohio State is heavily favored Saturday, despite falling below the Spartans in the latest College Football Playoff poll. The S&P+ gives the Buckeyes 78 percent odds, while Vegas favors Ohio State by more than two touchdowns.

Turnovers could prove to be a difference maker in the matchup, as the Spartans relied heavily on them in their matchups against Penn State and Michigan. And as we have seen, Ohio State has been inconsistent when it comes to maintaining possession.

Regardless, while it is mathematically possible for a two-loss Big Ten East champ to get into the CFP, it is far more likely that an undefeated Wisconsin would make a better candidate for the committee.

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