Rivalry games really are not that fun. The downside of losing looms so much larger than the relief of winning, especially in games like this. The Michigan Wolverines have come up short too many times against Michigan State for anyone to be comfortable, and with the stakes so high for the series’ biggest matchup in years, no one is sleeping soundly this week.
And yet...on paper this seems one seems much more slanted than the narratives portray. The betting lines shade maize and blue, as does S&P+, which seems completely justified while looking objectively at both teams. While games are played on the field and anything can happen in a rivalry, the numbers point in favor of the visitors.
No Michigan fan will be lulled into this confidence, however. Questions abound at the quarterback spot, issues in the red zone could soon turn costly, and no one is fully convinced that the secondary is still not a huge flaw. State fans come into the weekend with plenty of uncertainties of their own, making Saturday the type of game where nearly any result could happen.
No. 6 Michigan Wolverines (7-0, 4-0) vs. No. 8 Michigan State Spartans (7-0, 4-0)
The biggest storyline remains the same for the Wolverines. Cade McNamara just does not have the downfield, or even intermediate, accuracy to be a real threat, but at this point it is what it is. The coaching staff seems content sticking with its No. 1 option, despite the deep shots drying up and the clear abilities of J.J. McCarthy. McNamara is a relatively safe and predictable quarterback, and that has been deemed good enough for this team.
It is worth speculating that one reason for this is ball control. As Michigan continues to dominate on the ground and eat up the clock, the need for a big play quarterback is not that large. McNamara had some good success hitting his tight ends short, and as long as the running backs continue to find first downs, the Wolverines can get by without a complex passing game. McCarthy raises the ceiling, but perhaps this current approach is high enough output.
Per S&P+, the Michigan offense sits 22nd in the country, which is a big difference from the 53rd-ranked Spartans. As good as Kenneth Walker is, State did not exactly dominate Nebraska and Indiana, and the Wolverines certainly will offer more resistance in the front seven. Meanwhile, the pass offense has been just about as productive as Michigan’s in Big Ten play, though it does have some big-play potential.
State has a respectable defense, falling between Wisconsin and Nebraska per S&P+ (12th). No running attack has had a huge game so far, but the Spartans have not faced a back as good as Blake Corum or Hassan Haskins, let alone this sort of duo. If the Michigan offensive line is healthy, Jim Harbaugh should be able to win this game exactly how he wants to, wearing down the will of the opposing defense on the ground.
Everyone remembers how the Michigan secondary was embarrassed last year, and that remains State’s biggest opportunity again. While the screen has turned into an annoying weakness of the defense over the past couple weeks, this side of the ball could come down to Payton Thorne’s ability to take shots downfield. Let Walker get his yards and live to fight another down. Mike Macdonald’s scheme is much better prepared for this than Don Brown’s, and the cornerbacks will not be put on no-win islands again this year.