Michigan passed game one of its so-called ‘three-game gauntlet’ with flying colors, demolishing Wisconsin 38-13.
As it did that, though, a funny thing happened: ‘the gauntlet’ quickly became delegitimized in the eyes of many observers. Wisconsin, expected to be a playoff contender before the season, had lost to BYU and now gotten demolished by the first ranked team it faced. Michigan State, the Wolverines’ next opponent, lost to Northwestern, and Penn State — the capstone of what was once considered the nation’s toughest three game stretch — dropped its second game in a row.
Come Saturday, though, any assumptions about Michigan’s level of opposition can be thrown out the window.
MSU presents bigger challenge than Wisconsin
Last week, I predicted an easy win for the Wolverines because Wisconsin simply wasn’t very good. The same may be true of the Spartans. The truth is, we don’t know — their win over Penn State last weekend makes them one of college football’s most enigmatic teams.
But it doesn’t matter because this is Michigan State, and nothing is normal when Michigan plays them. The last three years of the rivalry are equal parts painful and irrelevant to Saturday so I’ll spare the details but the point is to take any statistics or analysis with a grain of salt.
Statistics and analysis, though, are my job with this column. And those statistics point strongly enough towards the Wolverines that I’m taking Michigan to win its seventh straight.
Beyond the numbers
Statistics aren’t the only reason I’m doing that, though.
Last week, I was warned to pick Wisconsin because the Wolverines ‘couldn’t win big games’ — even though they’ve only lost two ‘big games’ that they were favored in under Harbaugh. This week, I’ll surely be warned to not pick them because they ‘can’t beat Michigan State.’
And considering the last three years — or even the last ten — that’s a justifiable argument. But what’s forgotten is that in both 2015 and 2017, the Spartans were simply the better team. They were ranked five spots ahead of Michigan at the time of the 2015 game and went on to win the Big Ten and make College Football Playoff. Last year, the Wolverines were highly touted going into rivalry week but their season quickly unraveled and they finished the season unranked.
This is an entirely different set of circumstances. Over the past six weeks, Michigan has been one of the most dominant teams in the country, destroying mediocre opposition before unleashing its power on the Badgers last weekend.
Michigan State comes into Saturday on a high after beating Penn State but it has been a lackluster season for the Spartans. Even beyond upsets at the hands of Arizona State and Northwestern, their wins have been unconvincing, with home wins over Utah State and Central Michigan coming by 7 and 11, respectively.
The Spartans’ defense is the best in the nation in yards per carry allowed on the ground but is just 39th in passing yards per attempt. Last year, that combination would have doomed Michigan. Against Wisconsin, though, its offensive line showed an ability to get push on a strong front seven, while Shea Patterson gives the Wolverines a passing threat that they didn’t have in last year’s rivalry loss.
The real issue for Michigan State is its offensive struggles, as it scores just 26.2 points a game. Against Michigan’s sixth ranked scoring defense, that’s putting a lot of pressure on its defense.
Unlike last week, I’m not locking in a Michigan win, because this is State and anything can happen. But a Wolverines loss on Saturday would be the biggest shocker since Iowa in 2016.