Five things to watch in marquee Michigan State-Oregon matchup

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Saturday's Michigan State-Oregon game is a huge one. It's really the first big test of college football's new postseason era, as both teams have legitimate aspirations of making the first ever College Football Playoff.

Those aspirations won't necessarily be dead for the loser of this game, but the winner certainly will be positioned as an unquestioned playoff front-runner.

I'll be calling the game and am not making any predictions about who will win. I'm just looking forward to seeing how it plays out.

Here are five things to watch on Saturday as two of the nation's top teams meet in Eugene.

1. Mariota vs. Cook

Yes, I know Mariota and Cook won't be on the field at the same time and will each be focused on the opposing defense, but I'm interested to see how each responds to much tougher competition a week after strong showings in their respective season openers. Mariota is considered a top Heisman contender -- will he play to expectations against one of the toughest defenses in college football? Cook, who is now 13-1 as the Spartans' starter, plays with a chip on his shoulder and will no doubt be looking to prove he can hold his own against Mariota in a tough road matchup. These guys both need to be at the top of their game.

2. Michigan State's offense is the X-factor

I know the matchup getting the most attention is Oregon's high-powered offense vs. Michigan State's stingy defense, but the Spartans' offense is the X-factor in this game that people aren't talking about enough. Can it be as explosive against the speed of Oregon's defense?

As well as Cook has played -- and he's been great -- his development isn't the only lone reason for the Spartans' newfound explosiveness on offense. The MSU offense has been super-charged since last season's Big Ten title game, when the Spartans beat Ohio State, 34-24. Jeremy Langford leads an impressive group of backs and a wide receiving corps headlined by Tony Lippett has really come along nicely. Cook has three tight ends he's comfortable throwing to, as well.

3. Can Oregon's O-line generate movement in running game?

Oregon will want to run first against Michigan State. That's how the Ducks are built. Oregon might be known for producing scat backs like De'Anthony Thomas, but there are bigger, thicker guys in this backfield like Byron Marshall (5-foot-10, 205 pounds), Thomas Tyner (5-11, 215 pounds) and Royce Freeman (6-0, 229).

Can the Ducks' offensive line match up in the trenches and move people? Stalemates won't be good enough against MSU. They have to get a push and open lanes against a stout defense.

Oregon's kryptonite the last couple of years has been a physical Stanford team. This whole offseason Oregon has talked about getting stronger without losing speed and being more physical on both sides of the ball. Well, here's a chance to show what you've got against a team that is a lot like Stanford in how it's built and how it plays.

4. Can Calhoun dance with Mariota?

Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun is about as good as it gets at defensive end in the college ranks. He's a playmaker, and so is Mariota as a dual-threat quarterback. Calhoun will have to be disciplined enough to keep contain against Mariota and avoid giving him a clear exit to run from the pocket on his side of the line. Tracking the athletic signal-caller on pass plays will be no easy task either.

5. Can Oregon's WRs make plays downfield?

Oregon's top four pass-catchers from last season are gone (the lone returner from that group, Bralon Addison, is recovering from an ACL tear) and the new crop of receivers is about to get a heck of a test in Week 2. Will Keanon Lowe and Co. be able to make plays downfield against MSU's "No-Fly Zone" secondary? The Spartans lost some key players from that group, too, including first-round cornerback Darqueze Dennard, but they didn't relinquish their nickname. It's still a formidable secondary with Trae Waynes, replacing Dennard as boundary corner and Kurtis Drummond, one of most underrated players in the country, at safety.

Follow Charles Davis on Twitter @CFD22.

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