Let's be honest, nobody saw this game coming. Back in August, few people outside of the Northwestern locker room expected anything other than maybe mediocrity from the Wildcats in 2015. On the flip side, there may have been excitement for the Michigan season, but more for what the future held than what 2015 would bring.
On Saturday, Northwestern and Michigan will square off in the Big House in what has shaped up to be a legit College Football Playoff elimination game. The Wildcats have taken down two quality opponents and buried the rest of their schedule with ease. Michigan is playing as well as anyone in the country, with their only loss coming at currently 5th-ranked Utah in a game the Wolverines could have won.
The winner of the game could very likely find itself in the Top Ten of both the AP and the USA Today Coaches Polls next week. Perhaps more importantly for the time being, that team would also remain unbeaten in conference play.
College Football Podcast: Week 6 Preview with Tom Dienhart
Northwestern at Michigan
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Spread: Michigan -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Which defense breaks first?
Michigan only allows 112.6 passing yards and 71.4 rushing yards per game. Northwestern is holding opponents to 130 and 117.4 in the same categories respectively. Something has to give. This contest has "low-scoring game" written all over it, and the difference is likely to come down to a broken play or missed assignment late in the fourth quarter.
2. Who wins the quarterback battle?
As referenced above, rushing yards are likely to come at a premium in this one. Both offenses are going to need to open it up through the air in order to hang points on the board. Michigan's Jake Rudock has played in these games before, so the setting is not likely to phase him. That said, he's had trouble taking care of the football this season. On the other side of the field, freshman Clayton Thorson has consistently made plays — both through the air and on the ground — to put his team in position to win. Be that as it may, he's never had to do that with 100,000 or so fans in maize and blue screaming at him.
3. Who wins the chess match on the sidelines?
Again, this one is probably going to be low-scoring and close — if both teams come in with the game plans we've seen from them all season. The winning coach is probably going to be the guy who decides to gamble and throw the biggest wrench into his normal process to break the game open. Both Jim Harbaugh and Pat Fitzgerald are notoriously conservative, but it wouldn't shock me to see either one of these tough-running teams come out in an empty backfield set that we didn't see coming or perhaps utilize a defensive player in some sort of gimmicky fashion — likely on offense. These are two of the most competitive men on the planet, and you'll see both throwing out everything they can — stopping just short of suiting up themselves — in order to win this one.
Northwestern has a game under its belt against Stanford — a team very similar in style to Michigan for obvious reasons. Styles and schemes aside, the Wildcats have yet to face a team with the type of athletes Michigan has on both sides of the ball, and that will eventually catch up to them in this one. Jake Rudock has thrown a half dozen interceptions, but that doesn't change his persistency. His short memory in that regard will come into play here. Expect him to challenge a Northwestern secondary downfield like they haven't been challenged all season, eventually breaking through for a big play or two. That'll be the difference in this one — along with what should be a fired up Ann Arbor crowd that will make life hard on Northwestern's freshman signal caller.
Prediction: Michigan 19, Northwestern, 13
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Scott is the editor-in-chief of KnowItAllFootball.com, a Big Ten site for Big Ten fans. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.