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Michigan vs. Michigan State: Spartans to continue march toward Ohio State

Michigan State can take control of the Legends Division with a win on Saturday, and that's good for the Buckeyes' national championship ambitions.


As Ohio State's efforts to compile a resume worthy of title game consideration is the only Big Ten story of note on a national scale, it's first worth considering how Buckeye fans should view the game in East Lansing. The answer is that their egos will not need to mediate a dispute between their ids and super-egos: Ohio State backers should be rooting for a Michigan loss. The ideal scenario for the Bucks is that Wisconsin wins out, giving Ohio State one marquee win in the rear-view mirror, and that Michigan State arrives in Indianapolis at 11-1, which would give the Buckeyes a second potential 10-point stag to stuff and display over their fireplace for poll voters.

Michigan is not the team that Ohio State wants to see winning the Legends Division, because any scenario in which the Buckeyes are in national title contention, Ohio State will have beaten Michigan the previous week in Ann Arbor.  Voters are unlikely to give Ohio State much of a reward for beating the same team in consecutive weeks, especially a team befouled by the stench of narrow escapes against Akron (Football Outsiders F/+ No. 103) and UConn (No. 100) this season.

No, Ohio State would much rather play Michigan State, a team that: (1) the Bucks miss in the regular season; and (2) will bring an outstanding defense, thereby creating an attention-grabbing offense vs. defense narrative for the game. Throw in a dose of the recency effect, and Ohio State might be able to make a strong closing argument if they get to 13-0 with a neutral-site win over Sparty. However, to be in that position, they need Michigan State to win on Saturday.

Happily for Ohio State fans, there are a number of factors that point to a Michigan State victory on Saturday:

1. This is a game that Mark Dantonio wins.

Dantonio is 4-2 against Michigan.  The two losses were a 28-24 decision in Dantonio's first year -- in which Michigan State blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead -- and a 12-10 decision last year, a game in which Michigan's Brendan Gibbons booted a 38-yard field goal on the penultimate play. Of Dantonio's four wins over the Wolverines, three were by multiple scores and the fourth only went to overtime after the Spartans dominated most of the 2009 game and then allowed Tate Forcier (remember him?) to lead a pair of fourth quarter touchdown drives. In other words, Dantonio is closer to 5-1 or even 6-0 against Michigan than he is to 3-3.

The performance of Dantonio's teams versus the spread against Michigan has been even more impressive:

Year Spread Result
2007 Michigan -4 Michigan by 4
2008 MSU -4 MSU by 14
2009 MSU -4 MSU by 6
2010 Michigan -4.5 MSU by 17
2011 MSU -3 MSU by 14
2012 Michigan -9.5 Michigan by 2

Simply put, Dantonio's teams outperform their track records against Michigan. The Spartans have covered in the past five meetings by a collective 55 points. The Vegas odds are set primarily on the basis of how the two teams have done over the course of the season. Whatever levels the casinos and betting sites have attributed to those two teams, Michigan State has played above that level against Michigan under Mark Dantonio (or perhaps Michigan has played below those levels). The guy knows the game that matters most to his fan base, and his teams consistently deliver good performances in that game.

2. This is a game that Brady Hoke loses.

While Dantonio has a sample size of six games against Michigan, which unfortunately is what often passes for a proper sample when analyzing college football games, Brady Hoke has coached only twice against Michigan State and is 1-1. However, Hoke's teams have played enough games away from Michigan Stadium for us to say that they have a pattern of struggling when they leave Washtenaw County. Hoke is 19-0 at home, but only 5-6 in road games and 6-8 in combined road and neutral site match-ups.

Moreover, the list of teams that Hoke's teams have beaten on the road isn't exactly a murderer's row:

Opponent Score F/+ Ranking of Opponent
2011 Northwestern 42-24 59
2011 Illinois 31-14 53
2012 Purdue 44-13 76
2012 Minnesota 35-13 79
2013 UConn 24-21 100

Given that the 2011 Illinois team was in full-on get-Ron Zook-fired collapse mode when Michigan played them in 2011, Hoke's best road win after two and a half years on the job is a victory over a Northwestern team that finished 6-7.  Michigan State is currently ranked 25th in the F/+ rankings, so if the Wolverines were to beat the Spartans, it would constitute by far the best road victory of Hoke's career in Ann Arbor.  In other words, just as Michigan State losing as a six-point favorite* would break a pattern of Dantonio's teams matching or exceeding the oddsmakers' expectations, Hoke's team winning a road game against a quality opponent would be something novel.

*Note that the line has moved 2.5 points in Sparty's direction since it opened. I'm not the only one feeling pessimistic about Michigan's prospects on Saturday.

3.  Michigan State's strength meets Michigan's weakness.

Michigan fans started the season worried about the interior of the offensive line. Thanks to Rich Rodriguez's subpar recruiting at the position and the snail-like manner in which Hoke was hired (thus damaging Michigan's 2011 recruiting class), Michigan has exactly one scholarship upperclassman at guard or center, and that guy, Chris Bryant, is still recovering from a broken leg suffered last year.

At the outset of the 2013 campaign, Michigan's interior starters were a three-star sophomore (Jack Miller), a walk-on sophomore (Graham Glasgow), and a five-star redshirt freshman (Kyle Kalis). Oddly enough, Glasgow is the only one of the three who has not been benched, and his new wingmen are a redshirt freshman who has been moved from tackle (Erik Magnuson) and a true freshman (Kyle Bosch).

And if there is any team that can attack an inexperienced, suspect interior offensive line, it's Michigan State. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi loves him that double A-gap blitz. They killed unbeaten Michigan with it in 2011 and then used it in 2012 to hold a favored Michigan team without a touchdown. And the two linebackers who featured most heavily in the aforementioned breakdown of Michigan State's use of the blitz against Michigan -- Max Bullough and Denicos Allen -- are both still around to torment the Wolverines.

If the Wolverines couldn't handle this blitz in 2011 -- when the interior of the offensive line was a Rimington Award-winning center, a senior guard, and a junior guard -- or in 2012 -- when the interior of the offensive line was a trio of seniors (albeit two of the three were liabilities and hadn't started until their senior seasons for a reason) -- then what chance do they have in 2013 with a walk-on sophomore and a pair of freshmen?*

*One additional complicating factor: in the last two seasons, Michigan could deploy Vincent Smith at tailback. Smith, who was last seen as the recipient of a Jadaveon Clowney hit of some repute, was an above-average blocker. An above-average blocking running back is critical against the double A-gap blitz, and Michigan doesn't have one anymore.

4.  Pat Narduzzi versus Al Borges.

It might seem churlish to rip on an offensive coordinator whose team is eighth nationally in scoring offense and whose last outing saw his attack put up 751 yards while breaking a number of school records, but the matchup of coordinators when Michigan has the ball will be uneven.

Narduzzi is outstanding at what he does. His raw material is a starting lineup composed of only two players who got four-star ratings in the 247 composite rankings. His output is a unit that is fourth in defensive F/+, third in scoring defense, and first in yards per play allowed. Unless you assume that Dantonio is the true architect of Michigan State's defense, you won't find a better-performing coordinator than Narduzzi.

On the other side, you have Al Borges, whose offenses have put up 26 points total in two meetings against Narduzzi. Every starter in the Michigan lineup got at least four stars from the 247 composite rankings, save for the tailback, the fullback, one wide receiver, and the center. Despite that talent, Michigan's offense played a large role in the near-disasters against Akron and UConn. It then produced the bizarre Penn State performance, in which Borges's steadfast commitment to the tailback running game generally and the tackle-over formation specifically produced so many failed running plays that one Michigan blog concluded that Borges needs to go, because of his "simple refusal to properly use the tools at his disposal," and a second dubbed one of his calls "the dumbest play in the history of football."

So you have a superlative defensive coordinator against an offensive coordinator whose performances are uneven. The brief history between these two coordinators is that the defensive guy wins, in no small part because the favored blitz tactic of the defensive guy hasn't been solved by the offensive guy.

How do you think this matchup is going to play out?  (Note: this question is rhetorical.)

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