The stakes are high in this one. The winner has the inside track for the Capital One and an outside shot at the Rose Bowl should the conference champion be selected for the national championship Nokia Sugar Bowl (unlikely). The loser will have to fight for an outside shot at the Jan 1, Outback bowl but most likely will be pegged for the Dec. 29, Alamo or the Dec 31, Sun Bowl in El Paso, TX.
Representatives of the Capital One bowl were also in attendance at the Arkansas-South Carolina match up and reportedly expressed approval of an Arkansas-Michigan State tilt if both teams were to get through their seasons with 9-3 marks.
Arkansas improved to 6-3 with a win over South Carolina yesterday while MSU is currently at 7-2 with road games remaining with OSU and Wisconsin before closing with Penn State. If the Razorbacks were to stumble again however, Florida and Tennessee could also be possible opponents for State on New Year's Day.
At the start of the season, a guaranteed berth in a game like the Alamo bowl would have been snapped up by all but the most zealous of Spartans fans, but now, it would be a letdown for the Green and White if they don't end up playing on Jan 1, 2004.
As late as last week the Spartans were ranked #9 in the nation and had the inside track to the Rose Bowl and an outside shot at the national championship game, but all that went by the boards as MSU lost to cross-town rival Michigan 27-20.
The Spartans still have a lot to play for with games on the road against Ohio State and Wisconsin before finishing the season in the land grant trophy game vs. Penn State. MSU must win two of their last three in order to play on Jan 1st.
It won't be easy.
MSU will take on the defending National Champions the Ohio State Buckeyes in the "horseshoe" on Saturday. Michigan State quarterback Jeff Smoker will be keeping a wary on his backside looking out for OSU defensive end Will Smith.
Smith a consensus first-round draft pick say NFL scouts has already wracked up 9 ½ sacks this season. "He continues to play extraordinarily hard," said Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel. "He's a guy that knows our defense through and through and is asked to do a lot of different things and is a great leader out there for an excellent defense."
Smith on the other hand is just as wary of Smoker's ability. "I see a quarterback that's smart and runs his offense very well," Smith said. "It's Jeff Smoker's show. . . . Over his four seasons, he's gotten better [despite] all the problems he went through. He's finishing off his career and having a great season."
The Spartans will have to shake off the jitters that consumed any chance they had of getting off to a fast start against Michigan. Several Spartans including Smoker blamed "jitters" for their tentative play including several dropped passes early in the contest.
State will also need to ramp up their run defense that was shredded by Michigan running back Chris Perry for 261 yards. Without tackle Greg Yeaster, MSU will run out junior Kevin Vickerson who will need to improve on last week's effort.
Smith and weak side linebacker A.J. Hawk, who leads the team with 77 tackles and 4 ½ sacks, will have to be accounted for by MSU.
If the Green and White want to continue thoughts of bowling on New Year's Day, they will need to get it done in Columbus tomorrow.