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Inside the Numbers: Don't Expect Michigan to Blow Out Michigan State

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It's been a long time since Michigan put the screws to its in-state rival.

Michigan v Michigan State

On Sunday, sportsbooks revealed Michigan is a double-digit favorite against Michigan State. But recent history suggests that you will be biting your nails on Saturday night.

The last time Michigan beat its in-state rival comfortably was more than a decade ago. It was 2006, when the No. 6-ranked Wolverines smacked around the sputtering Spartans after a late afternoon kickoff at the Big House. Chad Henne led Michigan to a touchdown on its first drive, connecting with Adrian Arrington from 13 yards out, and found Mario Manningham for two more scores before Michigan State could find the scoreboard. The Wolverines led by as many as 24 points and cruised to a 31-13 win. Michigan’s perfect season continued, while the John L. Smith era came to a close.

Then Mark Dantonio arrived in East Lansing, and it hasn’t been the same since.

The Spartans pushed Michigan to the brink in Dantonio’s first season. They led by 10 points midway through the fourth quarter, and it took a trio of jaw-dropping plays — Mike Hart fielding Ryan Mallett’s “bounce pass” and scurrying for a first down, Henne dropping his best dime to Greg Mathews on one leg with pressure in his face, and Manningham soaring over an MSU cornerback in the end zone for the game-winner — for the Wolverines to win, 28-24, and do just enough to cover the 3.5-point spread.

But it was a sign of things to come. Dantonio took that loss personally, responding to Hart’s “Little Brother” comment that “pride comes before the fall” and “it’s just starting.” Just watch his press conference to get a sense of how much disdain he has for the Michigan program and how much he wanted to kick their ass every year.

Michigan State hasn’t always kicked Michigan’s ass, but since then, the Spartans have always given their absolute best against Michigan, whether they’re contending for a Big Ten championship or just scrapping for their first conference win of the season. There is no better evidence of this than that, from 2008 through 2016, Michigan State is 9-0 against the spread versus Michigan. They’ve beaten the spread every single time.

And it’s not just that MSU’s beaten the spread every time. It’s that they’ve crushed it:

On average, Michigan State has been 12.6 points better than the spread in its last nine games against Michigan. In seven of them, the Spartans have been at least 10 points better, and they have been no worse than 6.5 points better than the spread in any.

That’s the sign of a team that always saves its best game for its in-state rival.

So by how much is Michigan favored against Michigan State on Saturday? 10.5 points.

Oh.

If the past nine years are any indication, that would suggest that the Spartans will be taking the Wolverines down to the wire and maybe (just maybe) handing them a loss.

Now, let’s get all of the caveats out of the way because I am sure you are screaming them at your screen. First, Vegas spreads are computed, in part, by excellent analytics which measure a team’s quality, but they are not meant to project a game’s margin of victory. Their purpose is to attempt to split the money bet on the game between the two teams to ensure that the sportsbook wins regardless of the game’s outcome.

Second, the results from the past nine years are not as pertinent to this year’s match-ups. This year’s teams have different coaching staffs and players than from previous seasons. And what’s happened in the past won’t necessarily persist in the future.

Third, the context of these scores always needs to be considered. For example, last season, Michigan beat Michigan State by only nine, falling well shy of the 24.5-point spread, in a year when the Spartans barely posted three victories. However, this was not a close game and not one that was ever really in doubt in the second half. The Wolverines led by 20 points halfway through the final frame, and it was only two late MSU touchdowns, including one with one second remaining, that made it seem as if the Spartans were “defeated with dignity.” Though the ending sequence of that game (at least until Jabrill Peppers showed off his track speed) made Michigan fans queasy and compelled them to have nightmarish flashbacks, the winner had been decided.

And it’s not as if Michigan won’t have some intangibles on its side for this Saturday. In fact, the game could have a similar feel to the 2006 match-up. The unbeaten, No. 7-ranked Wolverines take the field under the lights at the Big House against a Spartans program that has had their struggles as of late, particularly on the road where they have lost their last four and not defeated a team with a winning record since 2015. With a raucous crowd behind their back, the Wolverines could ambush the Spartans.

But given the past decade with Dantonio overseeing Michigan State, that would be a surprise. This is setting up to be a defensive-minded duel. Michigan’s defense is one of the best in the country (1st in YPP; 2nd in S&P+), and Michigan State’s is not too far behind (11th in YPP; 16th in S&P+). On the other hand, Michigan’s offense will be breaking in John O’Korn, who did perform very well in relief against Purdue, and hoping that its offensive line is ready for the double A-gap blitzes MSU will have loaded, while the Spartans’ offense is squarely in below-average territory (75th in YPP; 76th in S&P+).

Just like in recent years, Michigan State will likely give its best effort vs. Michigan, and with two teams that could struggle to score, points will be at a premium, which means there is a greater likelihood Michigan-Michigan State will be tight down the stretch.

And a greater likelihood Michigan fans will be nervous in the fourth on Saturday.