Saturday's loss to Iowa was understandably disappointing for Michigan State, but it is not the end of the world by any means. A national championship is now out of the picture, but all that means is that MSU can focus solely on what has been its main goal ever since Mark Dantonio became the Spartans' head coach: making it to the Rose Bowl.
Four teams in the Big Ten have one conference loss, so there are many different scenarios for how the title picture could play out in the final four weeks of the season. For Michigan State, three main scenarios would result in the Spartans ending their Rose Bowl drought. In this post I am going to go through the scenarios and essentially outline the different paths the final weeks of the season could take to put Michigan State in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988.
Before we jump into the scenarios, let's quickly run through the tiebreakers that are in place for the automatic bid to the Rose Bowl. If there is a tie at the top of the conference between two teams, the head-to-head matchup is the first tiebreaker. If that is not applicable (it wouldn't be if MSU and Ohio State tied, for example), then overall record comes into play to break the tie. If things are still tied after that, then the team with the higher ranking in the final BCS standings receives the automatic bid.
For ties involving three teams, the same basic process is followed. There are some special rules that enter the picture, though. First, if there is a three-way tie and Team A beat both Team B and Team C, then A gets the automatic bid. Second, if Team A lost to both Team B and Team C, then A is out of the picture and the tiebreaker procedure goes to a two-way tie between B and C. Third, if a scenario pops up where two or more of the teams involved in the tie didn't play each other, then the tiebreaker reverts to overall record. If that still doesn't break the tie, then the BCS standings determine which team gets the automatic bid. (The procedures for a four-way tie are basically the same and a four-way tie is highly unlikely anyway, so I'm not going to bother going through them.)
Now that you know the tiebreaker rules, let's take a look at the four teams still in contention for a Big Ten title and what games they have left this season:
Michigan State (8-1, 4-1): vs. Minnesota, vs. Purdue, at Penn State
Ohio State (8-1, 4-1): vs. Penn State, at Iowa, vs. Michigan
Wisconsin (7-1, 3-1): at Purdue, vs. Indiana, at Michigan, vs. Northwestern
Iowa (6-2, 3-1): at Indiana, at Northwestern, vs. Ohio State, at Minnesota
Now let's move on to the scenarios that would result in Michigan State going to the Rose Bowl. For these scenarios, I am assuming Michigan State will win its final three games. The Spartans should easily beat Minnesota and Purdue at home, and although the Penn State game is on the road, I can't see MSU losing. Besides, if MSU does end up slipping up even once in the final three games of the season, winning the Big Ten title and going to the Rose Bowl is extremely unlikely, so let's just assume the Spartans will finish 11-1 for the sake of this discussion.
MSU To The Rose Bowl: Scenario A
Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State all lose at least once. Michigan State would be the only team with one loss in the conference and would win the Big Ten title outright. I have a hard time seeing this scenario playing out simply because at least one of Wisconsin, Iowa and OSU should win out, but this is the most straightforward path to Pasadena for MSU.
MSU To The Rose Bowl: Scenario B
Wisconsin wins out and both Ohio State and Iowa lose at least once. This would result in there being a two-way tie between Michigan State and Wisconsin. Because the Spartans beat the Badgers, they would receive the automatic bid to the Rose Bowl.
MSU To The Rose Bowl: Scenario C
Wisconsin and Iowa win out, meaning Ohio State loses at least once (to the Hawkeyes). In this situation, there would be a three-way tie at the top of the conference between Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa. Because all three of these teams went 1-1 against each other, the next tiebreaker would be overall record. MSU and Wisconsin would be 11-1, so Iowa is out of the picture with a 10-2 record (the Hawkeyes' loss to Arizona could prove to be very important for which Big Ten team goes to the Rose Bowl). MSU and Wisconsin would then revert to the two-way tie procedures, sending the Spartans to the Rose Bowl since they beat Wisconsin.
Barring all three of the other teams with one loss in the conference losing a game in the final four weeks of the season, Michigan State needs to hope that Iowa beats Ohio State while Wisconsin wins out. If Ohio State beats Iowa, the Spartans would have to hope that Penn State knocked off the Buckeyes a week earlier or that Michigan beats them a week later. Anything is possible, of course, but I don't see Ohio State losing either of those games, so if Iowa loses to OSU it will be tough for MSU to make the Rose Bowl. Here is a full breakdown of the scenarios that would result in MSU being shut out of the Rose Bowl despite finishing 11-1:
- Wisconsin and Ohio State win out, meaning Iowa loses at least once (to the Buckeyes). The three-way tie could not be broken by overall record (all teams would be 11-1), so it would come down to the final BCS standings. There is no way MSU will move ahead of either team if both Wisconsin and OSU win out, so the Rose Bowl bid would go to the Badgers or Buckeyes.
- Ohio State wins out and both Wisconsin and Iowa lose at least once. This is basically the same situation. Overall record wouldn't break the tie, so it would be left up to the BCS standings, and OSU would for sure be ranked higher than Michigan State if it wins its final three games.
- Wisconsin loses at least once and Iowa wins out, meaning Ohio State loses at least once (to the Hawkeyes). This would make the tiebreaker a simple head-to-head matchup. Since Iowa beat MSU, it would get the bid to the Rose Bowl.
If Michigan State does end up missing out on the Rose Bowl, it's still possible it could receive an at-large berth to one of the other BCS games. It's not likely, though. Looking at the first scenario listed above, Ohio State would go to the Rose Bowl and Wisconsin would likely receive an at-large bid to a BCS game if a second Big Ten team ended up being selected. In the second scenario where MSU ties OSU for the conference title, it's possible that the Spartans could receive an at-large bid. This would all come down to how some of the other one-loss teams in the top 12 or so of the BCS do the rest of the season, though. There are too many possibilities to even think about, but I don't think MSU's chances of being selected would be all that great. It's possible, but unlikely. The same would go for the third scenario, as Iowa would get the automatic bid to the Rose Bowl and MSU would have to root for other teams high up in the standings to lose.
The way the BCS is set up, it's possible that Michigan State could not only miss out on the Rose Bowl, but also miss out on a BCS game altogether. That would be a disappointing way to finish a season where you win a share of the Big Ten title and go 11-1, but it does really sort of look like it's Rose Bowl or bust for MSU. If a bunch of the one-loss teams fall to upsets or if Boise State and/or TCU/Utah go down, MSU's chances of an at-large bid would increase greatly, but a lot would have to happen. Basically, an at-large bid is possible, but Michigan State's best chance of getting to a BCS game is by ending up in Pasadena. Assuming no upsets happen the rest of the season in the Big Ten, Michigan State needs an Iowa victory when the Hawkeyes take on Ohio State on Nov. 20 for a trip to the Rose Bowl to be possible.