Michigan State (8-3, 6-2 Big Ten) had very little to gain and plenty to lose on Saturday against Maryland.
A loss would have dropped the Spartans far in the College Football Playoff rankings. As it is, their eventual 17-7 win impressed very few. Thus, no movement in the latest CFP rankings released Tuesday night would have been just fine … but coach Mark Dantonio’s team got even better than that.
Michigan State actually improved in the rankings, moving up one spot to No. 16. It was seemingly the best-case scenario for the Spartans after only one team ahead of them in the previous rankings lost: No. 13 Oklahoma State fell to Kansas State at home.
While the Associated Press and coaches polls seem to focus more on the eye test, the CFP rankings have taken Michigan State’s record simply for what it is. The Spartans have only outscored opponents collectively by a single point so far, but they still have a win against No. 10 Penn State. And their only losses are against No. 8 Notre Dame, No. 9 Ohio State and No. 22 Northwestern.
It would not have been particularly surprising to see Michigan State fall. Wins against Iowa and Michigan look less impressive now since both teams fell out of the rankings.
The No. 16 ranking is of course notable, but it may be even more important to see where Michigan State stands among Big Ten teams. As with a week ago, the Spartans are fourth behind Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State.
And if all goes according to plan, the Spartans will stay in that place as long as they win at Rutgers on Saturday. Even a win against Ohio State wouldn’t likely move Michigan that far forward, and Northwestern has little to gain when it finishes its regular season against Illinois. Michigan State would certainly benefit from a Maryland win against Penn State, but that seems improbable.
A Big Ten berth in the College Football Playoff would be crucial for Michigan State’s bowl bid. That would put the next-best team in the Rose Bowl and potentially open the door for Michigan State to sneak into the Citrus Bowl. At this point, though, the Outback Bowl seems a likely destination.
Nothing wrong with that, however. Michigan State last appeared in the Outback Bowl in 2011 as the No. 17 team in the nation, and it beat No. 16 Georgia 33-30 in triple overtime.
The lower-tier the bowl, assuming Michigan State beats Rutgers, the better chance the Spartans have to earn a 10th win. But you can bet that’s not on their mind. They want to face the best competition they can.