College Football Preview: Can Michigan Keep Winning?

A casual observer might look at Saturday’s schedule and say to himself, “This is a down week.”

That man requires an education.

The truth is, there’s no such thing as a down week in college football. It’s a myth. Maybe they existed back in the 1800s, when Yale used to win games by 145 points. Maybe there were some weeks when ESPNU was forced to carry games like William & Mary vs. Princeton. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But I’m telling you, the “down week” is a phenomenon of the past. With precarious rankings and undefeated seasons at risk each and every weekend, the knowledgeable viewer will never be bored. If anyone has the audacity to tell you there’s nothing compelling afoot on a given Saturday, you should grab that person by the lapels and shout “football!” over and over until they understand. And don’t trust them the first time they agree; that might be a ploy. When you start to sense something beyond fear and desperation, then you can tell them about:

THE BIG OLE GAME!

No. 11 Michigan at No. 23 Michigan State

Ahhh, mid-October. So many undefeated teams. So many of them undeserving. So many of them fated for sorry ends. A great time to be a connoisseur of the broken dream.

But what about Michigan? Is it time to prepare the eulogy? Michigan is like a beat-up jalopy with rusted sides and one window made entirely of packing tape. There are several dents from crashes. Liquor bottles are strewn about the interior. The junkyard is not unexpected. And yet, when you look at the odometer, it’s got 300,000 miles on it. And it still runs!

If you saw Tommy Rees and Notre Dame score the go-ahead touchdown at the Big House and leave just 30 seconds on the clock, you thought Michigan was dead. If you saw Denard Robinson throw his back-foot interceptions in a disastrous first half at Northwestern, you thought Michigan was dead. But Michigan isn’t dead. And if the Wolverines beat the Spartans this week in Lansing, they’ll become a living menace for the rest of the Big Ten. Look at the remaining schedule:

Purdue — Win.
@ Iowa — Win.
@ no. 16 Illinois — Win. Illinois is the worst ranked team in America, with the possible exception of:
no. 14 Nebraska — Win. Hey, it’s a ranked team with no defense and a shell of a passing game! In the SEC, Nebraska would already be 0-9. That’s right; it would have lost nine games in six weeks.
Ohio State — Win.

So if Michigan wins, we’ll have to face the horrifying possibility that the Wolverines could be undefeated going into the conference championship. Reassuringly, they will lose to Wisconsin by about 45 points in that game, but still … 12-0? Michigan? I’m not ready for that. Nobody’s ready for that. It’s too sudden. So what kind of resistance can we expect from Michigan State?

Hopefully strong. First of all, the Spartans are third in points allowed, conceding just 10.2 per game. The one black mark on that record is a 31-13 loss at Notre Dame, but that was deceiving when you consider that the Irish amassed just 275 yards of total offense to Michigan State’s 358. The gap in scoring came about because of a kickoff return for a touchdown and a long interception return that set up another. Aside from those costly mistakes, the Spartans arguably had the better of things.

Even with the bad loss, Michigan State is first in the country in total yards allowed per game, second in passing yards allowed, and third in rushing yards allowed. This is an all-around elite unit that would be ranked considerably higher if it had better luck in South Bend. If Robinson and the Michigan offense come out flat in their second road game of the year, they won’t have a forgiving defense to exploit in the second half as they did against Northwestern. A rabid Spartans crowd eager for their fourth straight win over the rival Wolverines will add to the stress.

On the other side of the ball, Michigan State has a top-40 passing game led by quarterback Kirk Cousins, an effective (if not spectacular) leader whose favorite target, B.J. Cunningham, already has 582 yards and 38 catches on the season. The Wolverines defense is susceptible to the pass, conceding 31 points to Notre Dame and 24 to Northwestern, despite benefiting from a combined seven turnovers. Here, too, things don’t shape up well for the maize and blue.

When a team with obvious flaws maintains an undefeated record for too long, it’s due for a reckoning. If it deserves to be exposed, it will be; pretenders never last an entire season. Is this Michigan’s Reckoning Game? The oddsmakers think so — Michigan State is favored by two. I agree, and then some. Michigan State will win by 10-17, and go on to give Wisconsin its sternest challenge of the year in Week 8.

Other Clashes of the Ranked

No. 6 Oklahoma State at no. 22 Texas. You know how in Greek mythology, the deceased had to take a ferry across the River Styx before they arrived in the land of the dead? Texas, your ferry has arrived. Enjoy the view. Next stop is the land of the unranked, where you’ll be banished for the remainder of the season. Oklahoma State wins in a blowout.

No. 18 Arizona State at no. 8 Oregon. Another blowout alert, which is a shame because I’m fond of Arizona State. It’s a weird team, and only a tough loss at Illinois separates it from an undefeated season. Quarterback Brock Osweiler is in the top 10 nationally in passing yards. The defense has been mostly solid, but it has had enough weak moments (a 37-30 overtime win at home against Missouri, to name one) that Oregon shouldn’t have trouble living up to its usual scoring standards. Plus, the Ducks are on a year-long mission to prove themselves worthy after the ugly LSU loss. If this one was on the road, or if LaMichael James was definitely out with the elbow injury he suffered last week (per Oregon, he’s “40-60 percent” likely to play, which is a fancy way of saying “50 percent”), I might give Arizona State a fighting chance. But as things stand, the neon green shall prosper.

No. 20 Baylor at no. 21 Texas A&M. This game makes me want to cry for joy. In fact, I am. I’m crying. My keyboard is full of tears. If I had to pick two lower-tier ranked teams to play, this would be it. And the fact that it kicks off at noon is a wonderful bonus; the prototypical noon game is Iowa vs. Minnesota, and this blows the prototype out of the water. Here are three reasons to treasure Baylor-A&M:

1. Both teams put 11 men on the field when the other team is on offense, but the resultant group of players is not something you’d ever call a “defense.” When the coaches send them out, my guess is that they yell things like “Stall for time!” and “Delay the inevitable!” Come Saturday, there will be points.

2. In order to win the Heisman, Baylor QB Robert Griffin III needs to have a signature moment against A&M, Oklahoma State, or Oklahoma. This is his best chance. I’m drooling at the idea of Griffin leading a last-minute drive to pull off a thrilling 71-67 win.

3. A&M has suffered a severe collapse three weeks in a row, two of which ended in season-killing losses. This time, if the Aggies get a big lead, they have the weight of memory plus the electricity of Griffin burdening their fragile backs. That’s great television.

Upset Watch

Last week featured three close calls that didn’t pan out. If you’re keeping track at home, the Upset Watch is now 4-8 straight up. More importantly, it’s 7-5 against the spread. Here are three to monitor Saturday:

1. Ohio State at no. 16 Illinois. Despite the collapse last week, Ohio State proved it is capable of playing effectively on the road against a ranked opponent. Illinois is 6-0 by virtue of tight wins against Northwestern, Western Michigan, and Arizona State. The Illini like to run and they struggle when forced to pass. Unfortunately for Illinois, Ohio State is a top-40 rushing defense. This is a legitimate, no-brainer Reckoning Game all the way. Vegas is hedging its bets with the 4-point spread, but even that isn’t cautious enough.

2. No. 19 Virginia Tech at Wake Forest. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Tech’s favored by seven? On the road? Against a team as hot as Wake? When Clemson beat Tech in Blacksburg, they stuffed the line (allowing just 3.3 yards per carry on 40 rushes) and forced the Hokies to pass. The Hokies failed, and it became a bad 23-3 loss. By the numbers, Wake Forest actually has a better rushing defense than Clemson (allowing just 102 yards per game), so there’s no reason it can’t employ the same exact strategy. If that’s the case, why do we expect the Hokies to rescue themselves with the passing game on the road when they couldn’t at home? Has Logan Thomas magically improved from the guy who’s thrown five picks along with his seven touchdowns? Jump on this upset with both feet.

3. This was going to be specially reserved for no. 17 Kansas State at Texas Tech, but the Red Raiders are favored. Vegas thwarts me again. Instead, we’ll go with Florida at no. 24 Auburn. Florida is favored by two, and I don’t see any great justification. Sure, Auburn just got smoked at Arkansas, but Florida has been brutally thumped for two straight weeks by the SEC West giants (LSU, Bama), and that kind of humbling can’t leave a team gung-ho for more. It’s true that the Gators have a formidable running attack, and that teams tend to run all over Auburn, but the impressive Florida numbers came in the easy weeks. They couldn’t work any rushing magic in their past two games, and Auburn will most definitely force whichever true freshman is at the Gator helm to throw, throw, throw. Nothing here indicates a close Florida win — in fact, it indicates just the opposite.

The Most Significant Insignificant Game

Florida State at Duke. Just because I think we all want to see how low Florida State has sunk. And brother, Duke is low. This is like a shark slowly getting defeated in battle by all manner of sea animal, until it finds itself among the plankton. But crap, the plankton are 3-2, and the shark seems oddly scared …

The Energy Infusion Call

This one is an honest-to-god gem. In honor of Sparty:

“Is that home cooking, or what?”

That game directly inspired the Big Ten to appoint a neutral timekeeper rather than having the home team appoint its own.

The Conference Rundown

Here are the best games, not previously mentioned, from the six major conferences.

ACCno. 8 Clemson at Maryland. Huge trap game for the Tigers. Maryland played a strong game on the road at Georgia Tech last weekend, losing by just five, while Clemson had an easy time with Boston College. The Terps are at least a little better than their 2-3 record indicates, and after so many big wins, Clemson needs to watch out for complacency on the road.

Big 12no. 17 Kansas State at Texas Tech. Fun game, lots of offense, and a chance for Kansas State to force everyone to take it seriously.

Big EastSouth Florida at Connecticut. Slim pickings, gang.

Big TenNorthwestern at Iowa. It’s been a miserable year for Northwestern, with losses to Illinois and Michigan that could have been wins, but the Wildcats can start to turn it around against an Iowa team with a strong defense and a very questionable offense. High “quintessential Big Ten slugfest” potential here.

Pac-12no. 7 Stanford at Washington State. The great Pac-12 teams always seem to have a hiccup or two on the road against a middle-of-the-pack team, and this could be Stanford’s version. Currently, Washington State gives up the fewest passing yards per game of any Pac-12 team (in the land of the blind, the one-eyed passing defense is king), and the Cougars average almost 500 yards of total offense every week. Take care, Stanford. The 21-point spread feels high.

SECno. 15 South Carolina at Mississippi State. Remember when Mississippi State was ranked? Yeah, me neither. Still, big upset potential. Don’t forget that the CougarsBulldogs nearly beat Auburn on the road. That feels like a long time ago, but it wasn’t.

Eds note: This post has been edited to remove a reference to Dwayne Frampton, who is averaging more than 100 yards receiving per game, but does not play for Arizona State. Sorry, Dwayne.


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Filed Under: Clemson, College Football, Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma State, Shane Ryan, South Carolina, Stanford, Texas, The College Football Spectacular

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere