The road to the Big Ten Championship goes through East Lansing, Mich., on November 8, as the Ohio State Buckeyes travel north to play the Spartans in what is now a divisional contest.
For the Buckeyes, winning the division hinges on stopping Connor Cook and developing the passing game to exploit mismatches against the Michigan State defense.
A season ago, Sparty stood between the Buckeyes and an eventual BCS National Championship Game berth, but Urban Meyer's team simply could not dispose of the well-coached Spartans.
In 2014, the playoff berth and simply getting a shot at playing in the Big Ten Championship Game will require beating Mark Dantonio's team on its home turf.
While folks will talk home and away games, Michigan rebuilding and the new division split, the fact is Michigan State is the strongest contender to the Big Ten throne that does not wear scarlet and gray.
All hype aside, on the field, even as the Spartans replace several key pieces, the 2014 Michigan State team will be a handful for the Buckeyes.
It starts with Cook. An afterthought to start 2013, the rising junior returns as one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. Cook proved to be a smart ballplayer who found areas to exploit and then delivered accurate footballs so that his receivers could go make plays.
To combat Cook, who showed marked improvement in every game he played in 2013, the Buckeyes have to improve in pass coverage.
That means not blowing Cover 2 as Ohio State did in the Big Ten title game to surrender the 72-yard touchdown to Keith Mumphery.
It also means getting to the quarterback and forcing poor passes on dialed-up dogs, not giving Cook a green light for a touchdown strike like he threw to Tony Lippett later that game. As the corner blitzes, the safety is left with a mismatch against a receiver he simply cannot handle.
As was discussed prior to the Big Ten Championship Game and heading into spring, the Buckeyes have to gain a better understanding of relating to receivers. Failure to relate creates opportunities, and as Michigan State showed in the title game, poor angles are how completions turn into touchdowns.
Luke Fickell's defense is going to stop the run—that is a non-negotiable for the Buckeye defense.
To seal wins and put opponents away, the same zeal that comes with shutting down the run game must carry over into the pass defense.
On the other side of the ball, the ground game for Ohio State is going to do its thing. Braxton Miller is going to get his carries and hit home runs. Ezekiel Elliott appears poised to step into the spotlight to replace Carlos Hyde.
However, the key to securing victory against the Spartans will come through the air.
That does not mean home runs on chuck-and-duck bombs from Miller. It also is not about scramble drills that, thanks to the power of improvisation, turn nothing into something. Rather, it is about skillfully manipulating the intermediate passing game to the Buckeyes' advantage.
In real terms, that means working to get Jeff Heuerman, Dontre Wilson and other Buckeyes targets involved outside of the edge threats in Devin Smith and Evan Spencer.
For 2014, it is about making the new Spartans linebackers do the work to get stops and not letting Trae Waynes or Kurtis Drummond be the deciding factor.
A linebacker on Heuerman or Wilson is a problem for the defense. Miller has to understand how to take the space that the defense gives him and turn that opportunity into drive-extending completions.
A season ago, both Northwestern and Indiana showed that there were yards to be had against Pat Narduzzi's defense, as long as the quarterback hit his spots and was decisive.
As the Columbus Dispatch's Tim May pointed out early in March, Miller is working on that element of his game in spring through mental repetitions. The rising senior is going to need that ability because throwing deep balls and living on screens will not get the job done against the Spartans.
Ohio State returns the most talented team in the Big Ten, but to get to its goal of a Big Ten Championship—and a playoff spot—the squad has to beat one of the nation's best-coached units in Michigan State.
Beating the Spartans means improving upon the deficiencies of a season ago, most notably pass defense and working the intermediate pass game.
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