Michigan is firing on all cylinders right now. The defense is ranked at or near the top in every key area, the offense has been sneakily good, and most opponents have barely stood a chance for more than 10 or 15 minutes. Michigan State has been the complete opposite, losing five straight games and ranking in the bottom half of the country in most statistics. This combination has made the No. 2 Michigan Wolverines over 20-point favorites for this Saturday’s showdown, but talk to any Michigan fan and you would not know it.
The reason for caution is certainly understandable. Michigan State has dominated the rivalry lately, and few have forgotten the heartbreak from a year ago. Even though this Michigan team is the best group out of Ann Arbor in over a decade and this year’s Spartan team is probably the worse in this time span too, many fans are worried that this is set up to be a typical rivalry game where records fly out the window. But is there any truth to that?
Top-10 teams seldom fall
Step back for a minute from the rivalry aspect. From 2013 to 2015, there were 236 matchups between a team ranked in the top 10 and an unranked opponent. On only 18 occasions the underdog came away with the upset. That gives the favorite a crisp 92.4 percent winning percentage in these games. While the ranked team is not infallible, they are more than likely to grab the win.
This season, top-10 teams have actually performed slightly better than this mark, winning 93.5 percent of the time. 43 wins against unranked opponents have been marred by just three losses: LSU against Wisconsin during Week 1, Houston falling to Navy, and Ohio State’s defeat against Penn State last weekend. When it comes to heavy favorites in college football, the outcome almost always favors the better team.
But rivalry games have to be different, right? Sure, when two random opponents play the better team is going to win more often, but what about when there is something more at stake? To investigate this idea, I looked at 21 different rivalries over the past 10 seasons: Alabama-Auburn, Florida-Georgia, Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, South Carolina-Clemson, Florida State-Miami, Oklahoma-Texas, Texas-Texas A&M, Texas-Texas Tech, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, Kansas-Kansas State, Baylor-TCU, Washington-Washington State, Oregon-Oregon State, Cal-Stanford, USC-UCLA, USC-Notre Dame, West Virginia-Pittsburgh, Minnesota-Iowa, Iowa-Iowa State, and Nebraska-Oklahoma.
While this list is not comprehensive, it encompasses 44 instances when a top-10 team faced an unranked rival. Similarly to the results seen above, the favorite won 88.6 percent of the time. Three of the five losses came before 2010, with only Georgia losing to Florida and Oklahoma falling to Texas during the past two seasons.
Not only have ranked favorites grabbed the win against their rivals more often than not, but they have done so in convincing fashion. During their 39 wins over the past decade, the ranked team has won by an average of over 21.5 points, with a third of these wins coming by 30 points or more. The line for this week’s game sits right around this range.
The battle for Paul Bunyun
These numbers intentionally exclude Michigan, including their games against Michigan State. This rivalry has been dead even over the last 16 seasons, so it becomes tempting for fans to look at anything outside of these results. When both teams are ranked, MSU has a 4-1 record since 2000. They also hold a 1-0 advantage when neither team is ranked, while the teams have split 1-1 when only State is ranked.
But when the Wolverines are facing an unranked Spartan team, the advantage falls 6-2 in their favor. Additionally, only three times in the last 16 years has a top-10 team faced the other who is unranked: No. 8 MSU won handily in 2014, No. 6 Michigan dominated in 2006, and No. 6 Michigan controversially lost during Clockgate in 2001.
Anything could happen this Saturday in East Lansing, but a Michigan loss should be completely unexpected. Top-10 teams do not fall often to inferior foes, and even rivalry games do not land outside this platitude.
The Michigan-Michigan State rivalry has been a messy one of late, but the Wolverines have done well when booked as the stronger team. The fact that this matchup constitutes a rivalry does not change the enormous gap between the teams on paper and on the field.