Prior to the start of the regular season, most people likely assumed the Michigan Wolverines (7-0) would be the favorites entering their yearly matchup against the Michigan State Spartans (2-5). Favored by 23.5 points though? Probably not.
The Wolverines have been as impressive as any team in the country through eight weeks of the season, smothering teams with their No. 1 ranked defense and then wearing them out with a balanced attack on offense. In the last two games alone, Michigan has outscored its opponents 119-8 while allowing just 194 total yards combined.
The same cannot be said for the Spartans as they come into this weekend riding a five-game losing streak after falling to Maryland 28-17 on the road last week. Both sides of the football look to be in complete disarray, which is an obvious concern for head coach Mark Dantonio as Michigan State heads into its most important game of the season to date.
Can you throw out the records in rivalry games? We will find out Saturday.
Michigan at Michigan State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 29 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Michigan -23.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Quarterback Quandary
Coach Mark Dantonio isn’t giving any hints as to who will be under center when the Spartans take the field on Saturday. Redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke has started each of the past two weeks and done some good things, primarily with his legs, but Dantonio has stated he needs to provide more of a threat throwing the football vertically. Fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor came on in relief of Lewerke against Northwestern and threw for 281 yards and three touchdowns in the second half but was unavailable last week against Maryland due to a foot injury. “It’s probably a game-time decision based on how the week goes in terms of whether it’s (Lewerke’s) play, others’ play, or quite frankly, some injury situations,” Dantonio said to the Detroit News earlier this week. The expectation is that both quarterbacks will be used throughout the game, pending O'Connor is available to play.
2. Smothering Secondary
Jabrill Peppers may garner most of the headlines, but you could make the argument that cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling are the biggest reason for Michigan’s success on defense thus far in 2016. Through eight weeks of the season, the Wolverines currently have the No. 1 pass defense in the country, allowing just 111 yards per game through the air with seven interceptions. In the three games played during the month of October, the Wolverines have allowed a grand total of 188 yards, with opposing quarterbacks completing just 25 percent of their passes. For the entire season, opposing quarterbacks have a completion percentage of just 41 against the Wolverines, second only to Florida. When specifically targeting Lewis and Stribling, quarterbacks are only 11-of-39 passing with zero touchdowns and four interceptions, according to Pro Football Focus.
3. Back in the Saddle
This was supposed to be the breakout season for sophomore running back LJ Scott after a promising rookie year in which he led the Spartans in rushing yards (699) and touchdowns (11). After a 100-yard rushing performance to open the season, followed by 98 yards and a touchdown against Notre Dame, Scott seemingly fell out of favor with the coaching staff and was playing second fiddle to Gerald Holmes. While the two did split carries this past week against Maryland, it was Scott who had the more impressive night with 128 yards on the ground, including a 48-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. If the Spartans are to have a chance against the Wolverines on Saturday, they will have to establish some semblance of a ground attack in attempt to control the clock and keep the Michigan offense off of the field. That's easier said than done against the No. 4 rush defense in the country.
The tabloids in the state of Michigan are already expecting this game to be one of the biggest blowouts that will occur this weekend in college football. And can you blame them after what most of have had to endure the past five games when watching to the Spartans? The quarterback situation is a mess. The defense is getting gashed both through the air and on the ground. Penalties and turnovers are happening left and right. But like former Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins said in his postgame interview this week following his game against the Detroit Lions, “you can throw out the record” in rivalry games. Mark Dantonio will have his guys ready to play against their hated in-state rivals, and the game will be closer than expected heading into the second half, but the talent discrepancy this year between the two teams will be far too great to overcome. Expect the Michigan defense to force multiple turnovers and put down the hammer in the fourth quarter to secure a comfortable victory.
Prediction: Michigan 38, Michigan State 17
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Make sure to follow him on Twitter @MikeBainbridge2.