The 2014 college football season is just one week old, but the biggest non-conference game of the year is scheduled for Saturday. No.7 Michigan State will visit No.3 Oregon in a matchup between two of the favorites to qualify for the College Football Playoff.
Both teams enter the contest at 1-0 after picking up easy victories in what were essentially tune-ups for the Week Two game. Oregon rolled over South Dakota 62-13, while Michigan State dominated Jacksonville State in a 45-7 win.
With the game set in Oregon, the Ducks will have a significant advantage. Last year, Oregon went undefeated at home, beating opponents by an average of nearly 27 points per game. The betting odds reflect the team’s dominance in front of their home fans, as the points spread at most Las Vegas casinos has the Ducks listed as 12.5-point favorites.
In 2013, Oregon sported the second-best offense in the sport, scoring 45.5 points per game and averaging 565 total yards. The offense has a chance to be just as explosive in 2014, with Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Mariota returning for another season. He needed just one half to throw for three touchdowns and run for another score last week.
"I believe he is the best player in college football, the best quarterback, the most explosive quarterback, because of his foot speed,'' former Oregon coach Bellotti said. "But he (also) led his league in accuracy; he sees the field, he's a veteran now, he makes the various reads, he can get from first, to second to third to fourth read and still use his feet to attack the defense.''
If any team has the ability to slow down Mariota, it might be Michigan State. The Spartans won the Big Ten Championship a season ago on the strength of the nation’s best defense, which allowed just 251.9 yards per game. After surrendering just one touchdown in the opener, the team is looking to pick up where it left off last year.
Michigan State lost more than half of its defensive starters, but a few key players have returned in 2014. Shilique Calhoun is the best defensive lineman in the conference, and Taiwan Jones is a top linebacker. Despite Oregon’s offensive prowess, the over/under for the contest has been set at just 55.5 points, indicating the Ducks should score well below their average.
Connor Cook might not put up numbers comparable to Mariota this year, but it’s hard to overlook his performance in Michigan State’s first game. The quarterback was nearly perfect, completing 12 of his 13 pass attempts for 285 yards and three touchdowns. The Spartans also ran the ball 50 times for 211 yards.
If Michigan State wants a blueprint for defeating Oregon, they don’t have to look any further than their Rose Bowl opponent from eight months ago. One New Year’s Day, the Spartans beat Stanford, who has handed Oregon two of its three losses since 2012. Against the Cardinal, the Ducks have averaged just 17 points per game.
“Stanford won the time possession game and their offense was on the field more,” Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes told reporters. “That was a big plus for them because it gave their defense a lot of rest. That’s one thing I took out of it. It’s going to be a physical game.”
Prediction: Oregon 28, Michigan State 27