Oregon vs. Michigan State: The official start to the College Football Playoff

AP Photo/Steve Dykes
AP Photo/Steve Dykes

For the first time ever, we’ll be able to watch a football game this weekend and know that the winner will have the fast-track to a spot in the College Football Playoff.

It’ll happen when the Oregon Ducks square off with the Michigan State Spartans Saturday night in Eugene, Oregon. The No. 7-ranked Spartans will play visitor to the No. 3 Ducks, and in an early-season matchup between two juggernauts, rankings don’t mean much.

Rankings also won’t matter much anymore at the end of the season, because that’s not how the playoff’s participants will be decided. From now on, it will be a committee hand-selecting the four semifinalists to play for the championship.

So for these two teams, it’s paramount to start the season on the right foot with a win over a quality opponent.

That’s especially true for the Spartans, who may not have much competition in the Big Ten this season. If Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin all disappoint – and they just might – this weekend might be Michigan State’s only chance to really impress the committee.

Oregon is loaded with speedy talent, as always, but how they’ll fare against one of the best defenses in the nation remains to be seen. It may be unfair to judge this year’s squad to the 2013 bunch, but it should be mentioned that the Ducks really struggled in a loss to Stanford a year ago, and that was one of the nation’s best defenses at the time.

Now, it’s the Spartans that return a stellar defensive unit, and that could mean real trouble for Oregon.

Even with a great defense lining up for Michigan State, the Ducks are going to score points because they’re just that good. Quarterback Marcus Mariota will be in the discussion for the Heisman Trophy all year, and he doesn’t mess around between plays. Mariota leads an offense that doesn’t huddle often, and can break a big play if the defense is caught off-guard.

MSU Junior quarterback Connor Cook will need to embrace the inevitable duel with Mariota and prove to be a worthy opponent. He has to command the Spartans’ offense and keep up with Oregon’s high-scoring tendencies.

Weather could also be a factor in this contest, as it’s expected to be brutally hot in Eugene when the game begins. The temperature will be in the mid-90s at kickoff, but it’ll rapidly fall throughout the game, and should be in the 70s for the fourth quarter. Generally, fast-paced offenses can benefit from oppressive heat, wearing down defenses by not allowing for much time between plays to regroup.

Still, I like the Spartans’ chances to get a big win on the road and turn up the heat in the CFB Playoff hunt.

These two teams have squared off four times in the past, all in September. They have split the series at two games apiece, and they haven’t faced each other since 1999.

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