A tale of the Big Ten: Michigan State, Ohio State and the line between good and great

Kenneth Walker III of Michigan State and Michigan State play back-and-forth Saturday for a win of 37-33. (2:35).
Coaches often repeat the slogan "Good is the enemy of Great."

It's simple. It is easy to settle for less than greatness. Coaches like great. Contract negotiations are only as important as the quality of your coach.

The biggest question about the 2021 season, aside from Georgia's win over Florida on Saturday, is the difference between great and good. Georgia is great. Everyone else? It's hard to know. The Saturday games were supposed offer answers.

This brings us to The Big Ten.

You might have thought that at least one of the five Big Ten teams was outstanding a few weeks ago.

Then Penn State was defeated in 27 overtimes by Illinois.

Iowa then remembered that scoring points is important.

Then, Michigan -- poor and sweet Michigan -- had a rivalry match.

The good-to-great dynamic is more evident than in Michigan, which lost to Michigan State by 37 points on Saturday.

Jim Harbaugh has a great coaching record. He has won many games at Michigan. It's hard to recall any of the ones that mattered.

Harbaugh won the Michigan game as an underdog in the season's first round. This begs the question: Why was Wisconsin so favoured? Despite the few big wins, Harbaugh's crushing losses are all too common. The 2016 Orange Bowl. The 2018 Notre Dame game. The ultimate surrender cobra. The ultimate surrender cobra. He has a flair to perform on the big stage, even if it is a destructive inferno that consumes his entire program.

Saturday's loss was especially disappointing because Michigan had many chances to win the game, but Harbaugh lost the most.

Harbaugh must be commended for being confused Saturday when Michigan's offense appeared to be led by a real quarterback. Historical evidence doesn't support the idea that Michigan could win without Harbaugh's QB. This would be like saying that Mars' gross domestic product is purple. These words are not equal. Cade McNamara, throwing for 383 yards, two touchdowns, and zipping one beautiful pass after another downfield, was amazing. Harbaugh was adamant that he would need to use J.J. McCarthy as a backup in order to gain an advantage he didn’t need.

It was a disastrous decision. McCarthy almost lost the game, but escaped when the ball bounced out from bounds. He did it again one drive later and the Spartans won. It was the beginning to an inevitable end.

Of course, it wasn't the worst way to lose to Michigan State. Harbaugh is also indicted by the hierarchy of terrible losses to Sparty.

It's not a shame to lose to Michigan State. The Spartans excel. Mel Tucker is the most popular coach in America and will have his pick of jobs, if he leaves East Lansing. Kenneth Walker III is a Heisman candidate. It is a great defense. Yet, Michigan had the game in its back pocket and it lost. This is the Harbaugh era's story, despite all its wins.

Is Michigan State a great school? This is the most important question the Playoff Committee will have to answer before it releases its first rankings on Tuesday. The win over Michigan by the Spartans is a great surprise. They were outgained by 157 yards and trailed by 16 before they took the lead in the 5:08 final. Sparty will remain in the "great" category for now. Walker won't be mad at us.

Michigan State may be great, but it is far from certain after the way the Spartans beat Michigan. Raj Mehta/USA TODAY Sports

After losing to Oregon at home in September, Ohio State was placed in the "good" category. But we all know that the Buckeyes can achieve greatness. They were playing for the national championship just one year ago. After that loss to the Ducks in November, Ohio State had proven it could be great through dominant wins. Yes, they were defeated by Akron, Tulsa, and Rutgers, but it was also against Maryland and Indiana. It was still four games with at least 50 points and the narrative started to take root: Ohio State was the only team capable of beating Georgia in a possible playoff matchup.

But against Penn State, which is free-falling? It was harder to find offensive support. On third down, the Buckeyes were only 5-of-15. They were terrible in the red zone. To keep the Nittany Lions away, they needed a defensive touchdown.

This is a blueprint for greatness. It may be, but Michigan State, Michigan, and Purdue still have to wait (not to mention Purdue which has already exposed the Buckeyes).

Iowa looked for a great defense and won. Once ranked No. 2, the Hawkeyes were a national powerhouse. The Hawkeyes were once ranked No. 2 in the country. If the offense had been even remotely serious, they might have stayed. Instead, the Hawkeyes rolled into a ball and waited to be punished.

Penn State could have been great this season. The Nittany Lions lost their third straight game, in a tight game where the offense couldn't handle enough. James Franklin has also been a very successful coach, so much that he will be refusing to take the USC job. He's had the privilege of Harbaugh rewriting his long list of losses in big games.

This is perhaps the lesson that Saturday taught us: Georgia is great, and the season's drama comes only from shuffled through a rotating cast good teams who are not quite up to the Bulldogs' level.

We still have one month left. Still time for a challenger. Perhaps it's Ohio State. Perhaps it's Michigan State. Perhaps it's Michigan State.

Who is in?

On Tuesday, the College Football Playoff committee will release its first ranking of the season. But you don't have to wait so long to gain insight into their thinking. Let's take a look at the top contenders and see how the committee will approach each one.

Cincinnati Bearcats (8 0)

Pros: They are undefeated and beat Notre Dame on their road.

Cons: They beat Notre Dame at home, which made it difficult for the committee then to place Notre Dame in the playoff. Also, Cincinnati managed to escape Tulane by just 19 points on Saturday, contrary to Oklahoma's heroic five-point victory over Tulane in Week 1.

The Committee's Take: This is a Group of Five team from a town that produces Group of Five chili.

Verdict: Cincinnati is out.

Georgia Bulldogs (8 0)

Pros: A dominant defense and undefeated. He has won over Florida, Kentucky and Auburn. Participates in the SEC.

Cons: Alabama is not Alabama.

Committee's view: The Dawgs are clearly the No. The Dawgs are the No. 1 team in the country. We're okay with that, because we believe Alabama will defeat them in the SEC championship (probably using its backup quarterback in the second half). This will restore order to chaotic times.

Verdict: Georgia is in.

Oregon Ducks (7-1)

Pros: Beat Ohio State in Columbus. Kayvon Thibodeaux is one of the most fearful defenders in America. The Ducks' explosive play against Colorado was evident in Saturday's win 52-29.

Cons: Stanford lost a crucial match and took a huge lead. It was lacking "Game Control", which is definitely something that matters.

The Committee's Take: It seems that the committee didn't assign anyone to Pac-12 games this season.

Verdict: Oregon is out.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish (7-1)

Pros: Brian Kelly threatened his team with execution after Week 1. Yet, they are still in the thicket of the playoff race. The Irish won over Purdue and Wisconsin, Virginia Tech and USC, and many of these teams were very good in the 1990s.

Cons: Notre Dame isn't really very good.

Committee's view: They lost to Cincinnati and the committee had to decide whether to allow a Group of Five team to enter the playoff. They should be punished. Brian Kelly is lucky that the committee does not place the same voodoo curse upon him as Scott Frost.

Verdict: Notre Dame is out.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons (8 0)

Pros: Wake is home to one of the most explosive offenses the country. For the first time ever in program history, the Deacons are now 8-0. Saturday's 45-7 win over Duke was the Deacons' second consecutive game with more than 655 yards of offense. Likely to bring new Krispy Kreme doughnuts (founded at Winston-Salem!) Their playoff site.

Cons: Defense has sometimes been weak. There have been no signature wins.

Committee's Take: Who?

Verdict: Wake Forest is out.

Alabama Crimson Tide (7-1)

Pros: We're proud of our wins over Ole Miss, and... Is Tennessee eligible? Florida, too? Oh, two points? Hmmmm. It's Alabama. It's not too complicated.

Cons: It can be difficult to choose between Archibald & Woodrow's or Dreamland.

Committee's view: Alabama is the current champion. The Tide are very talented. We have most of our analysis from last year so it is best to stick with what we have.

Verdict: Alabama is in.

Michigan State Spartans (8-0)

Pros: Georgia beat Michigan undefeated. They have a great running team and a strong defense. Mel Tucker is also an expert on Georgia's defense. This could be very interesting.

Cons: A win over Jim Harbaugh in a game of rivalry doesn't count as a major win.

The Committee's view: If the Big Ten wanted to have a team in their playoffs that wasn't Ohio State they should have voted for 12. Your actions have consequences, The Alliance. Don't get mad at us. We wouldn't be liked if we were angry.

Verdict: Michigan State is out.

Oklahoma Sooners (8 0)

They are undefeated. They are a great source of jokes about Texas. Caleb Williams is the quarterback and it looks great. If necessary, they can lend Spencer Rattler to Georgia in order to assist the SEC.

Cons: They nearly lost to Kansas. They are not yet in the SEC.

Committee's view: This is a difficult one. The Sooners would win if Oklahoma were already in the SEC, and had won over Vanderbilt and LSU. But West Virginia? Kansas State? Nebraska?

Verdict: Oklahoma is out.

Ohio State Buckeyes 7-1

Pros: They score 50 when they play a bad team.

Cons: Playoff teams can be a bit disappointing.

Committee's view: Oregon lost at home to them, so how are we going to put them in front of the Ducks. We can do anything we want.

Verdict: Ohio State is in.

Texas A&M Aggies (6-2)

Pros: Beat Alabama. Plays in the SEC where there is a brutal schedule that includes Mississippi State and Arkansas.

Cons: Mississippi State and Arkansas lost.

The Committee's Take: We don't like it when two-loss teams are allowed into the playoff. But the Aggies beat Alabama and we are tied.

Verdict: Texas A&M has been in.

Month of misery for the Longhorns

Here's a quick overview of how October has treated Texas.

On Oct. 9, Texas led Oklahoma by 28-7 at halftime and was leading Texas 41-30 when the game ended. Texas lost.

On Oct. 16, the Longhorns led Oklahoma State by 24-13 after a Bijan Robinson TD in the third quarter. They were leading 24-22 at the end of the fourth quarter. Texas lost.

Texas led again at the half. They scored in the third quarter to lead 21-10. Texas held a 21-17 advantage to begin the fourth against Baylor. Again, Texas lost.

One optimist might point out that these three opponents are 22-2 this season. The fact that Longhorns had a large lead against each other speaks volumes about the talent level Steve Sarkisian has at the moment. Any remaining optimists in Austin are now confined to Matthew McConaughey’s free-range drum circle ranch.

Pessimists will find that there is not enough Shiner Bock to drown their sorrows. Texas has lost five games in the last two years, the most in the nation, when leading in fourth quarter. Texas has now lost three consecutive games when it held a lead in the fourth quarter. This is tied for the most losses in the last five seasons. Texas is also the first team to have a double-digit lead in the second half for three consecutive games, since 2006 Kansas.

That's right, Kansas.

The upside is that now, when people make jokes about Texas and Kansas, it won’t be just about the 2016 game.

Houston has many happy returns

SMU is at the top of the pain pyramid when it comes to the most painful ways to witness an undefeated season end.

Saturday's game saw the Mustangs engage Houston in a heated exchange. SMU fell behind 17-0, but rallied to take a 27-24 lead. The teams traded scores three times more. With 30 seconds remaining, the Mustangs scored a field goal to tie the game at 37. The ball was then handed off to Marcus Jones of Houston.

This was a mistake.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Jones returned Jones' kick 100 yards for a touchdown. This was the first go-ahead kick-return TD since Miami beat Duke's eight-lateral return in 2015. Although this one was more straightforward, SMU still had a chance of winning -- they performed a Hail Mary on a play that was incomplete in the endzone.

Houston moves up to 7-1 in AAC play and 5-0 with this win. SMU is also 7-1. What does this mean for Cincinnati's playoff hopes and dreams? Although the Bearcats are likely to play both SMU and Houston on Nov. 20, Houston in an AAC title game, it doesn't really matter much if either team is in a Power 5 league.

Houston stuns SMU with a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown TD. With seconds remaining, Marcus Jones kicks the ball to the house. Houston beats SMU 44-37.

Part 109: How Florida got screwed

Georgia built a huge lead of 24-0 at halftime over Florida. Then, they cruised through the second period behind another dominating defensive effort. Georgia won 34-7 to secure a spot in Saturday's SEC championship game.

Florida is now on a losing streak of three games and has lost seven of the last 11. These are difficult times for Florida.

Is it really Dan Mullen's fault that the Gators are free falling? Last year's loss at Texas A&M was due to too many Aggie fans in the midst of a pandemic. Mullen saw the bowl loss as a complete end to the season. As long as Florida plays Alabama close to home, that's just as good as a win.

This Georgia game is another. If people were willing to listen, Mullen could offer a dozen plausible explanations for Florida’s problems.

1. The final three minutes of the half-hour are irrelevant. Florida's first half ended around the 2:30 mark.

2. The game was held in Florida, but half of the crowd was Georgian. Is this allowed?

3. It is unfair that Georgia has all five-star defensive linemen. They should share. They are bad neighbors.

4. Mark Richt lost control over our football rivalry.

5. Mullen spent all week looking for a great mask to wear to the postgame news conference. But you guys were so mean, he decided to not wear it. (Note: It's Ted Lasso. It was to be the first year that he wore it.

6. Wouldn't it be nice to be mad at Todd Grantham! This is why Mullen keeps Grantham around.

7. Mullen was the one who started the QB that all his fans wanted.

8. Florida won 355-354 yards if we take yardage into consideration.

9. Mullen hasn’t even seen Stetson Bennet I, II, or III. How was he supposed know about Stetson Parker IV?

10. Georgia should have been flagged because there were too many Georgians on the field for half their defensive snaps, as Mullen considers Jordan Davis two people.

11. The Ted Lasso costume would have been a hit with you guys. Mullen wore a fake mustache. Steve Spurrier was supposed to appear as Coach Beard but he decided to leave at halftime to enjoy a few Coors Banquets on the lot.

12. It's the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Everyone had a few drinks before the game.

Week 9 quick hits

* Purdue defeated Nebraska 28-23 Saturday. This was the sixth loss for the Huskers this season by less than a touchdown. This is the worst playoff record for any team without a win in one-possession games. It's also the shortest number of one-possession losses recorded in this span. In 2015, Army was 1-7 and Notre Dame was 1-6 in 2016. Nebraska now stands at 5-18 in one-possession under Scott Frost, who is likely to lose two more games. He is also contemplating a "Eat, Pray, Love” journey of self-healing, growing his beard, Phish, and then accepting the UConn head-coaching job.

* This trivia might get you a free beer. Scot Loeffler of Bowling Green was kicked out after Saturday's win over Buffalo, 56-44. Loeffler, who is both the head coach and play-caller of the Falcons, probably didn't convince his fans that he was an integral part the team's chemistry.

Since 2016, head coaches can be ejected after multiple unsportsmanlike sanctions. Loeffler was the first to be ejected.

In 18 minutes after his ejection, Bowling Green scored more points than in any full game over the last two seasons pic.twitter.com/uqlBEdLRsK Rodger Sherman (@rodger) October 30, 2021

* Do you remember when Iowa was No. * Remember when Iowa was the No. It was crazy, it was called "two weeks ago". It was possible to win with defense. This was a great strategy for Iowa, which is against scoring touchdowns on religious grounds. The world was changed around October 15. Scores were suddenly all the rage. Kirk Ferentz is not one of those people who follows the latest trends. His closet is stuffed with Members Only jackets, Bugle Boy jeans, and more. For the Hawkeyes, winning football games has become a prerequisite. Iowa lost the game for the second consecutive week. They also failed to score seven points the second week. Wisconsin won the match 27-7. The Hawkeyes had just 156 yards of offensive offense, turned over the ball three times, ran only 24 yards, and were 2-of-16 on third down and fourth down. These numbers aren't good enough to beat Iowa State in September.

* Bo Nix was able to complete 70% of his throws and had 300 yards total. He also averaged at least 9 yards per passing against an SEC opponent. He now has it in two consecutive games. On Saturday, Nix was a masterful performer against Ole Miss, going 22-of-30 for 276 yard and scoring three touchdowns as the Tigers won 31-20. Now, we live in a "Bo Nix Is a Good QB” world. Make sure to stock up on beef jerky and bottled water. The end is coming.

* Washington State was not a problem with Arizona State. They jumped out to a 28-1 lead and cruised to a 34-21 victory that dropped the Sun Devils' record to 5-3. Herm Edwards, Arizona State's coach, took full responsibility for the loss and -- no, that's not what actually happened.

* Arizona has scored more than 28 points twice in its 16 previous games. It was the first time it scored more than 28 in its 16 games against USC. The second was Saturday against USC. Although the Trojans won the game 41-34, the Wildcats scored 466 yards of offense, which was their most in two years. USC may want to fire Clay Helton once more, just in case.

Heisman Five

Kenny Pickett's Heisman bid was canceled when Pitt lost to Miami. Pickett has 909 yards and nine TD passes during Pitt's two losses. Syracuse's Sean Tucker and Caleb Williams from Oklahoma, as well as Desmond Ridder of Cincinnati, made strong statements on Saturday. None of them make it into our Top Five for Week 9.

1. Georgia DT Jordan Davis

Georgia's defense allowed 2.66 yards per play against other Power 5 teams, when Davis was on Saturday. This was nearly one-and-a half yard more than any other defense. What happened against the Gators? This was the most difficult test for Davis and the Dawgs' defense. Florida's only point was a garbage-time TD. UGA's defense set up two more and scored a TD. Davis was left with just half a sack and a QB hurry. But that's not the point. He is the engine of the entire thing and has been the best college football player this season.

2. Michigan State RB Kenneth Walker III

Walker's Heisman hype has dimmed after a quiet week in Indiana. This won't be an issue anymore. Walker almost single-handedly won Michigan State the biggest win of the season. He rushed for 197 yards, five touchdowns, and nearly kept Sparty undefeated. Walker is the first player to have five or more rushing touchdowns against a top-10 rival since 2001. This season, he has surpassed 200 yards of scrimmage three times.

Kenneth Walker III ran for 197 yards against Michigan and scored five touchdowns. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

3. Alabama QB Bryce Young

Alabama was not at work this week. However, the Miami Dolphins requested that Young be used instead of Tua Tagovailoa Sunday.

4. Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud

The Buckeyes' 33-24 victory over Penn State was not an outstanding offensive performance, but Stroud did a great job. He completed 22 of 34 passes for 305 yards, a touchdown and kept Ohio State's playoff hopes alive in the face of a strong Penn State D.

5. Wake Forest QB Sam Hartman

Duke was utterly destroyed by Wake, and Hartman was the catalyst, with 463 yards total and five touchdowns. Hartman has now accumulated 2,683 yards, 28 touchdowns, and only three turnovers for the season. The only other players in the playoff era to have posted a 2,600/28/3 or better line through their first eight games were Marcus Mariota (his Heisman season 2014) and J.T. Barrett in 2017; Zach Wilson last year.

Play of the Week that's Not on the Radar

You are welcome to miss even one moment of the Liberty-UMass match. It was a good moment. Even if you had to endure the Flames' 62-17 loss, you still got to witness one incredible catch.

You want to ask Liberty? Ah, kind of. A Liberty cheerleader. The Liberty defenders will be sending out TD signals. It's perfect. Walt Bell, UMass coach, refused to allow all receivers to use cheer horns for the rest of the game. Seems unfair.

The week's under-the-radar games

There have been many memorable moments in Clemson-Florida State's rivalry over the years. From Nick O'Leary driving Travis Blanks in 2013, to FSU's miraculous OT win in 2014. FSU's professor reading a book in the stands while shirtless during a Clemson win 2018 to Dabo Swinney's feud with Mike Norvell after the Seminoles cancelled last year's match with only a few hours notice.

The two teams have been responsible for every ACC title since 2011. The game was a bit less exciting this year. FSU was 3-4. Clemson came in at 4-3. Both teams have had their fair share of hardships. Perhaps it wasn't as big an event in the ACC season this year as it was for many years. It was still good, but that's a different word. It had drama.

Lawrance Toafili, FSU, set a new record in terms of difficulty for a 75-yard TD reception. Clemson's Will Shipley ran 128 yards and scored two touchdowns. This was the Tigers' most exciting offense all season. Clemson failed three field goals, and gave up a scoop and score TD to the Seminoles. But Shipley's last TD run was enough to put the Tigers in a position to win.

Play 1:04 FSU's Toafili scores a wild 75-yard touchdown after rolling over defender Lawrance Toafili, breaking a tackle and then scoring his 75-yard score.

The real excitement was for those who placed bets on this game. 9.5 was the Tigers' favorite. All year, the Tigers have not covered a point spread. The Tigers led by four in the final play. The over/under was 47.5. FSU's final snap resulted in a score of 24-20. What happened next? The Seminoles attempted to score a last-gasp touchdown by completing a pass and then lateraling back and forth... and again... and again until Clemson recovered the final lateral in the end zone.

Clemson wins 10 to 10, with a total of 50 points. Fortunes have won and lost in the most absurd of endings. This is why college football has such a great reputation.