A lot of money’s been lit on fire on bets against the Michigan State Spartans in the last four years. Mark Dantonio’s team doesn’t recruit like Ohio State or Michigan, but it beats both of them regularly. Sparty’s taken two of the last four Big Ten titles despite a raw talent base that’s been miles behind both those teams’.
So I should know better than to pick Ohio State to obliterate these guys on Saturday.
But I don’t.
The Buckeyes are about 16-point favorites, and I think they’ll cover.
My pick: Ohio State 31, Michigan State 10. The Buckeyes take control of the Big Ten East and eventually win it, then beat Wisconsin to win the conference. I am a fool.
1. Ohio State’s just a lot, lot, lot more talented.
Each team is 7-2 and has one loss in Big Ten play. It would be easy to act like this game’s a toss-up. But it’s a lot likelier that Ohio State wins because the Buckeyes are better at football overall.
OSU is No. 2 in the country in S&P+, an opponent-adjusted advanced stat that has been better than Vegas at predicting team quality going forward. Michigan State is 22nd. The same stat projects the Buckeyes to win about 33-19, right on the spread margin. One reason those numbers don’t like MSU as much as the Playoff rankings do:
MSU is good but did need some turnovers luck to get by Michigan and Penn State. Based on national averages for fumble recovery rates and the ratio of interceptions to passes broken up, the Spartans’ expected turnover margin in those two huge wins was plus-zero. In real life, it was plus-seven. The average turnover is worth about five points’ worth of field position lost (by the offense) and gained (by the defense), so this discrepancy was worth around 35 points to the Spartans, who won these games by a combined seven.
The Buckeyes are the best non-Alabama recruiting team in the country, while Michigan State adds talent at a top-25 level. The 247Sports Team Talent Composite says Ohio State’s roster is the second-best in the sport, and Michigan State’s is 30th.
A talent edge isn’t everything. Ohio State has had one in every game it’s played this year (and lost twice anyway). Michigan State’s won despite it before. But this is more predictive than Spartan upset magic.
2. The game’s in Columbus.
Michigan State won there in 2011 and 2015. Ohio State hasn’t lost in East Lansing, meanwhile, since 1999. This has been a weird series. But I find all of that less predictive than the point that home teams win about 63 percent of all FBS games.
3. Lightning isn’t going to strike twice. Err, three times. Err ...
Michigan State has won its last two games at the Horseshoe, in 2011 and 2015. In between, it beat OSU in the Urban Meyer Pizza Game, 2013’s Big Ten title match in Indianapolis. Ohio State’s also squeezed out a couple of 17-16 wins.
I just don’t think it’s going to happen again.
Meyer’s team has now gotten boat-raced three times in the last calendar year. I feel totally confident in saying it won’t happen again. Why do you ask?
4. The Buckeyes have some key matchup advantages.
The Michigan State rush defense is good enough to slow down Ohio State’s running backs, especially because the Buckeyes don’t give the ball to their best one. J.K. Dobbins is just hanging out, waiting to get more than 14 carries in a game.
But the Buckeyes’ front is usually great. (In the four games before Iowa, nobody ran for more than 2.9 yards per carry against it.) Michigan State’s running game is bad (4 yards per carry and worse the last three weeks). The Spartans shouldn’t be able to run on this defense.
J.T. Barrett was bad against Iowa, but just before that, he was otherworldly against a better pass defense than Michigan State’s. He’s still thrown only five picks on the year. He’s going to do just fine against the Spartans, who’ve had two of their three worst pass-defending games of the season in the last two weeks.
The arrow’s pointing upward for MSU QB Brian Lewerke (845 yards the last two weeks), but he’s facing a pass D that’s (usually!) stout, when it’s not facing Baker Mayfield or Kinnick Stadium.
So assuming this game turns into more of an aerial battle than Dantonio and Meyer would typically prefer, Ohio State’s in good shape.
There are lots of “usually” caveats in this section, huh? I’m sure this will go fine.