Big Ten Championship: Top Michigan State vs Iowa X-factors

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Dec 7, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; General view of the championship trophy after defeating Ohio State Buckeyes 34-24 to win the 2013 Big 10 Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 5 ranked Michigan State Spartans (11-1, 7-1) are set to do battle with the undefeated No. 4 Iowa Hawkeyes (12-0, 8-0) for the Big Ten Championship and a likely spot in the College Football Playoff.

ESPN‘s College GameDay will be in Indianapolis covering the game. This will be Michigan State’s fourth GameDay appearance of the season, the most in the nation. The Spartans are 3-0 in their previous GameDay matchups: beating Oregon, Michigan and Ohio State.

Lee Corso picked the Spartans to lose all three games, so let’s hope he puts on a Hawkeye head on Saturday.

Michigan State is a 4-point favorite over the Hawkeyes, but the two teams match-up very closely. Both teams are averaging 33 points per game, rank in the top 25 in defensive efficiency, and have a +14 turnover margin.

Let’s take a look at five x-factors that will play a huge role in crowning the Big Ten champion.

5. Connor Cook

Nov 21, 2015; Columbus, OH, USA; Michigan State Spartans quarterback Connor Cook (18) stands on the field during warmups prior to the Spartans

Many eyes will be on the lethal duo of Big Ten Quarterback of the Year Connor Cook and Big Ten Receiver of the Year Aaron Burbridge.

They will be challenged against Iowa’s 12th-ranked passing efficiency defense led by Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year and Thorpe Award finalist, Desmond King. King leads the nation with eight interceptions, helping the Hawkeyes lead the conference with 17 interceptions. The Detroit Crockett product will be extra motivated facing his home-state Spartans, who did not offer him a scholarship back in 2013.

“We were close to offering Desmond,” Mark Dantonio told Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News. “He had an outstanding senior year, and at that time we were sort of filled up in the secondary, but he had an outstanding senior camp, and he was right there. He was one of those guys we had to make a decision on as a junior, coming out of his junior year.”

Iowa plays a soft Cover 2 defense similar to Penn State and Oregon. Prior to last week’s game, Penn State ranked 13th in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Coming off of a shoulder injury, Connor Cook had no issue picking apart Penn State’s pass defense, completing 19-of-26 passes for 248 yards and three touchdown passes with zero interceptions in Michigan State’s 55-16 division-clinching win over the Nittany Lions.

Aaron Burbridge has also fared well this season against top cornerbacks. Burbridge caught nine passes for 132 yards versus Michigan while going against one of the top cornerbacks in the nation and All-Big Ten player, Jourdan Lewis.

Iowa does not usually move its corners around, leaving them to play a particular area of the field. This means that Michigan State can move Burbridge around and force other DB’s to cover him. Iowa’s other CB, Greg Mabin, has often been picked on by Iowa’s opponents this season to avoid Desmond King.

Even if Iowa were to limit Burbridge, Cook still has plenty of weapons at his disposal in receivers Macgarrett Kings Jr., R.J. Shelton and tight end Josiah Price, who has six touchdowns this season despite missing multiple games due to injury.

As most of Spartan Nation knows by now, Connor Cook tends to play his best in the biggest games, and the Spartans will need him to continue that trend against the Hawkeyes’ solid pass defense.

Next: 4. The Iowa Wide-eyes