ANN ARBOR, Mich. – This has probably been the quietest week leading up to a Michigan vs. Michigan State football game in a decade.
Over the last several years, the two in-state rivals have traded dominance and shared a few epic battles. In 2013 and 2014, Michigan wasn’t even competitive. From 2015 to 2017, all three meetings were decided by single digits. Now, it’s the Spartans who have struggled two years in a row.
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But instead of the pendulum swinging back toward middle ground, both sides seem convinced Saturday could be even uglier than last season’s 44-10 beatdown at the Big House. Maybe it’s because MSU is in the first year of a new regime, with a staff that took over right before a global pandemic threw the offseason into turmoil.
More likely, it’s the aftershock of last week’s results, when Michigan notched an impressive 25-point victory over a ranked Minnesota team after Michigan State lost at home to lowly Rutgers.
Between 2019′s blowout win, what happened last weekend and the widening talent gap between the two rosters, Michigan has settled in as a 24-point favorite two days before the game.
For a rivalry that’s been competitive more often than not over the last 17 years, this week has been eerily silent.
Since 2003, Michigan leads the head-to-head series 9-8, with nine of the matchups being decided by single digits. In that span, Michigan has won by double digits three times while MSU has done so five times.
The reason for the sudden turn of the tide is simple: Michigan has continued to recruit at a high level and develop those players, while Michigan State’s recruiting suffered in the latter years of Mark Dantonio’s tenure.
Take a look at the national recruiting rankings from the last four seasons:
- 2017: Michigan -- No. 5, Michigan State -- No. 36
- 2018: Michigan -- No. 22, Michigan State -- No. 31
- 2019: Michigan -- No. 8, Michigan State -- No. 33
- 2020: Michigan -- No. 14, Michigan State -- No. 44
Recruiting isn’t an exact science, but when Michigan’s worst-ranked class from the last four years is nine spots higher than Michigan State’s best class, it creates a talent gap. Now that the Wolverines have a strong coaching staff, they’re starting to exploit that advantage.
That’s why I’m picking Michigan to win its third straight against Michigan State this weekend. But the real question is whether or not the game will be as lopsided as most people expect.
At a glance, many might expect Michigan to march up and down the field on Michigan State’s defense after nearly dropping 50 on Minnesota.
But the 38 points allowed to Rutgers was just as much a fault of Michigan State’s offense. The Spartans only allowed 276 total yards, 5.7 yards per pass and 2.6 yards per rush. They also forced three turnovers and made 11 tackles for loss.
If not for the seven turnovers, Michigan State probably would have cut Rutgers' score in half.
That means Michigan, which averaged 8.3 yards per rush in the opener, doesn’t know exactly what to expect. Will the offensive line be able to open the door to more explosive plays, such as Zach Charbonnet’s 70-yard touchdown and Hassan Haskins' 66-yard run?
If Michigan State takes away the run, Joe Milton will have to show he can manufacture scoring drives while the defense knows the pass is coming. He was incredibly efficient at giving his receivers the ball where they could make plays after the catch.
Michigan State’s secondary might be a little better than Minnesota’s, but it still can’t hang with all of Michigan’s speed if the receivers have room to operate.
On defense, Michigan has to answer questions about stopping the run. Mohamed Ibrahim had his way with the interior of Michigan’s defensive line, and Michigan State will certainly try to exploit that.
Rocky Lombardi had a decent game against Rutgers, but he’s very turnover prone and doesn’t have a track record of completing even half of his pass attempts. If Michigan can force a mistake or two early, it could go downhill fast.
Mel Tucker said during this week’s press conference that a team’s greatest improvement comes between the first and second games. Will that be the case for his Spartans? Will their improvement be greater than Michigan’s?
It’s only one game into the 2020 season, but based on what we know from last year, Minnesota should be a better team than Michigan State. Michigan completely dominated the Golden Gophers, so what does that mean for MSU?
Maybe Michigan benefited from multiple weeks of preparation for Minnesota, or it might have been a bad matchup.
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But what it really boils down to is there are a lot of “ifs” involved when trying to talk myself into a close game. In the end, most signs are pointing toward Michigan winning in style.
If the circumstances were the same, but it wasn’t “Michigan State” written on the opposing jerseys, this would be a classic letdown scenario for the Wolverines. They’re coming off a huge win. Everyone is singing their praises. They beat this team by five touchdowns last season.
But the players should remember the devastating loss to Michigan State in 2017, the hard fought battle in 2018 and the decade Michigan spent as the lesser of the two programs.
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I don’t think Michigan takes this rivalry for granted anymore, so Michigan State should have the team’s full attention.
As good as Michigan looked in the opener, this is still a roster full of young, mostly unproven players, so don’t expect a flawless performance.
Michigan State will improve from last week, and there’s almost no chance it turns the ball over another seven times. I think the point spread is at a pretty good spot, and Michigan will win 42-17.