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Michigan State vs. Ohio State Football Prediction and Preview

Michigan State Spartans vs. Ohio State Buckeyes Football Prediction and Preview

Control of the Big Ten East and College Football Playoff positioning are both at stake when the Spartans and Buckeyes collide in Columbus 

Implications for the College Football Playoff and the Big Ten title picture are at stake in this Saturday's Big Ten and top-10 clash between Ohio State and Michigan State in Columbus. With the Buckeyes and Spartans both possessing one loss already, this matchup is essentially an elimination game for playoff purposes. If Ohio State beats Michigan State, coach Ryan Day's squad will face rival Michigan for a spot (assuming the Wolverines beat Maryland) in the Big Ten title game. On the other sideline, a win over the Buckeyes and a victory against Penn State next Saturday would clinch the division in favor of coach Mel Tucker's squad.

Ohio State suffered a loss to Oregon in Week 2, but Day's squad seems to be getting better and rounding into form with each contest. The Buckeyes are riding an eight-game winning streak going into Saturday's matchup, which includes victories against Penn State, Nebraska, and Purdue. A high-powered offense leads the way as expected, and after a rocky start to the year, Ohio State's defense has played better under the direction of new coordinator Matt Barnes. The Buckeyes were No. 4 in the latest CFB Playoff rankings, and there's room to climb with top-10 matchups versus Michigan State and Michigan left, followed by a potential Big Ten Championship Game showdown against Wisconsin.

Michigan State's second-year turnaround under Tucker has been one of the biggest storylines in college football. The Spartans finished 2-5 last fall but sit 9-1 and ranked No. 7 in the playoff rankings. Behind Heisman candidate and running back Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State started 8-0, which included a huge 37-33 win over Michigan on Oct. 30. The Spartans stumbled at Purdue on Nov. 6, but Tucker's team can still make the playoff with wins over Ohio State and Penn State, as well as victory in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Ohio State holds a 34-15 series edge over Michigan State. The Buckeyes have won five in a row over the Spartans, and the last two meetings have come by a combined score of 86-22.

No. 7 Michigan State at No. 4 Ohio State

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 20 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Ohio State -19

When Michigan State Has the Ball

Pulling off an upset in Columbus is a tall task for Michigan State on Saturday. The Spartans enter Week 12 ranked second in the Big Ten in yards per play (6.83) and third in scoring offense (34.6 ppg). But if Tucker's squad is going to shock the Big Ten, the path to a victory starts with Walker and controlling the overall pace of the game.

A lower-scoring matchup benefits the Spartans, especially if they can control the clock and keep Ohio State's offense on the sidelines. Walker averages 159.7 rushing yards in Big Ten play and enters Saturday's matchup with 1,473 yards and 17 touchdowns through the team's 10 games this fall. Although Walker has rarely been held in check, the Buckeyes are arguably the toughest matchup he's faced this season. Ohio State is allowing just 2.7 yards per carry in Big Ten matchups and holds opponents to 91.6 yards a contest. After allowing 472 rushing yards through the first two games, the Buckeyes have limited opponents to 587 over their last eight matchups. Can Walker find any running room against a defense that hasn't allowed more than 113 rushing yards in a Big Ten game since the opener against Minnesota?

Although Walker and the pace of the game likely hold the keys to victory for Michigan State, quarterback Payton Thorne is a crucial piece of the puzzle too on Saturday. Ohio State's pass rush has thrived all year (33 sacks) and faces a Spartans' offensive front that has allowed just 16 sacks in 10 games. If Thorne has time to throw, the Buckeyes have been vulnerable in the secondary, ranking ninth in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense. Purdue threw for 386 yards last week, and Nebraska hit a couple of big plays against this unit. Jayden Reed (45 catches) is Thorne's go-to receiver, with Jalen Nailor (31) second on the team in catches, yards, and touchdown receptions. Nailor has not played the last two games due to a hand injury, and his status is uncertain for Saturday's contest. If Nailor is unable to go, there are extra snaps and opportunities available for Tre Mosley, Montorie Foster, and tight end Connor Heyward.

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Ohio State's defense had a rough start to the 2021 season, but a change in play-caller duties from Kerry Coombs to Barnes has brought some improvement to this unit. Although the Buckeyes aren't a dominant group just yet, this defense is holding Big Ten teams to 4.95 yards per play and 20 points a game — more than adequate for a team in the mix to win it all this year. This unit has struggled to get off the field on third downs but has allowed just six plays of 40-plus yards in '21.

Related: Predictions for Every College Football Game in Week 12

When Ohio State Has the Ball

The numbers on Ohio State's offense are simply staggering. The Buckeyes enter Saturday's contest averaging 8.03 yards per play and 46.3 points a game while pacing the Big Ten in most plays of 40-plus yards (19). Day's group has scored at least 30 or more points in eight of the team's 10 games and recorded 500 or more yards in seven contests this fall.

Quarterback C.J Stroud battled a shoulder injury through the first month of the season, but after missing the Sept. 25 matchup against Akron, the redshirt freshman has emerged as one of the front-runners to win the Heisman Trophy. Stroud torched Purdue for 361 yards and five passing scores last week, giving him 3,036 yards and 30 touchdowns to only five picks for the season. Also, the California native has connected on 68.8 percent of his passes and has been above 70 percent in four of his last six games.

Stroud's recent play and a deep Ohio State receiving corps is a nightmare matchup for a Michigan State defense that's struggled to stop the pass in 2021. The Spartans rank 10th in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense, with opposing quarterbacks connecting on 63.7 percent of their throws against this unit. Michigan passed for 406 yards and three touchdowns in Michigan State's 37-33 win in East Lansing, and Purdue recorded 536 yards and three scores through the air two weeks ago. Those performances are notable considering the sheer amount of firepower the Buckeyes possess is greater than what Michigan and Purdue had in the passing game. Garrett Wilson (53 catches), Chris Olave (51), and Jaxon Smith-Njigba (59) form the backbone of the nation's best receiving corps, and unless the Spartans have found an answer to the secondary woes, Ohio State's playmakers on the outside figure to find plenty of open space against the secondary on Saturday.

If Michigan State is going to pull off the upset, it has to win the battle up front to slow running back TreVeyon Henderson and disrupt the overall timing of Stroud and the passing attack. Also, stops in the red zone are going to be crucial. Ohio State struggled to cash drives in for touchdowns against Nebraska and Penn State but torched Purdue for four scores in the red zone after recording just two in games versus the Cornhuskers and Nittany Lions. Henderson (1,035 yards and 14 TDs) is an emerging star, but the Spartans aren't easy to run on (3.4 yards per carry in Big Ten play) and rank second in the conference in sacks generated (32).

The numbers for Michigan State's defense are solid coming into Saturday's showdown. Through 10 games, this group has limited opponents to 22.5 points a contest and 5.4 yards per play. However, big plays have been a problem, and third-down defense has been a weakness. In three games against teams with a winning record, the Spartans are allowing 34.7 points a contest. While the numbers look good on paper, teams that can throw the ball have had a ton of success against this defense. That's a significant concern for Tucker with Ohio State up next.

Final Analysis

Ohio State's offensive firepower against Michigan State's defense is a big mismatch and is likely to be the deciding factor in the game. The Spartans should find some success moving the ball, but the guess here is the Buckeyes find a way to get a couple of timely stops, giving the ball back to Stroud and the receivers. Michigan State keeps it close deep into the second half, but Ohio State's passing attack puts this one away late to move one step closer to the Big Ten title.

Prediction: Ohio State 38, Michigan State 24

Podcast: Week 12 Predictions + Picks Against the Spread, CFB Playoff Rankings and the Latest in Coaching Searches