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Michigan State football: 3 key factors and a prediction vs. Michigan

The Battle for Paul Bunyan is upon us.



Michigan State football
© Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State football will host the No. 2 Michigan Wolverines on Saturday night with a chance to do the unthinkable.

Like it or not, Michigan State football is going to play their archrival Michigan on Saturday night in East Lansing.

The Spartans come in as 24.5-point underdogs against the No. 2 ranked team in America. While the outcome seems pre-determined, here are three things to watch for with a prediction.

1. The first five minutes

For Michigan State football to have any chance of winning this game, they have to start well. They have to make a play that gets them going. Maybe that’s a trick play for a big gain. Maybe it’s three-and-out for Michigan on their first possession. Maybe it’s a turnover. Whatever it is, Michigan State needs a shot in the arm.

For weeks, it has felt like a foregone conclusion that Michigan will win this game 56-0. A positive, momentum-building play of any kind will at least put those thoughts on hold. MSU cannot afford to get down 7-0 before they see the ball. I don’t think they have any chance to win this game if they have to play from behind. This Michigan team is a boa constrictor that methodically crushes you. They’re content to run the ball, bleed clock, and kill you with body blows. The Wolverines have also had the luxury of playing from ahead for most of the season.

If MSU can score early, or at least frustrate this Michigan offense, maybe they’ll start to feel some pressure. I don’t expect energy or motivation to be an issue for MSU. Make no mistake, the players still believe they can win this game. They could be playing the New York Jets, and they’d still believe there was a way. That’s the mentality of 18–22-year-old young men. But the first five minutes should give us an idea of how far apart these teams are physically. This could be the best Michigan team we’ve seen in 30 years. It could also be MSU’s worst. The first couple plays should show us what that gap looks like and whether or not MSU has a shot even with their A+ game.

2. Michigan State mistakes

There has been nothing more frustrating this season than Michigan State’s habit of making bad situations worse with its miscues. It cost the Spartans the game against Rutgers. It cost them against Iowa. It’s a sobering reality that it’s just who they are right now. They are their own worst enemy.

These mistakes are not isolated to one unit either. It’s been a team effort.

Offensively, it’s turnovers and penalties. Defensively, it’s missed tackles and penalties. On special teams, there are mental mistakes, physical mistakes, and – you guessed it – penalties.

In the fourth quarter against Iowa and Rutgers, Michigan State football was outscored 34-0. The Spartans rank 116th in penalty yards per game. Bowling Green and Colorado State are the only two teams in the country with more giveaways. That type of sloppiness gives you virtually no chance against a team like Michigan. The Wolverines have just five turnovers in seven games. They’ve committed 16 penalties for 123 yards all season. To put it simply, Michigan State is going to have to play a game that we haven’t seen them play yet in order to win. When your opponent makes as few mistakes as Michigan does, it makes your mistakes that much more noticeable.

The hope for Harlon Barnett is that MSU has gotten most of those plays out of their system.

Their level of consistency when it comes to backbreaking gaffes feels unsustainable. At the same time, if they were going to stop, wouldn’t they have at least slowed down by now? It makes this game much more difficult to manage for the coaches. How do you make game-altering decisions when you can’t trust your team? Good decision making and play-calling can both be worthless without adequate execution.

You’re not going to beat Michigan by being conservative. I am betting that Barnett knows that. But with this team, that line between thoughtful aggression and reckless disaster is ultra-thin. Managing that in this game against this opponent is challenging.

3. Jim Harbaugh

In a game where it feels like Michigan can name the final score, I’m curious to see how Jim Harbaugh wants to handle things.

After the tunnel incident a year ago, nobody was more outspoken than Harbaugh. It really upset him. He’s now looking at the perfect storm to orchestrate a memorable route in East Lansing. Will he press the gas for 60 minutes? General consensus is that he will. I actually disagree. I think even Jim Harbaugh understands that this rivalry has reached a boiling point. The last thing it needs is more shenanigans from one side to fan the residual flames from a year ago.

There’s nothing to prove here for Michigan. The Spartans got them in the COVID-19 year and the year after in an ultra-competitive game. Aside from that, Michigan has taken back control of this rivalry. The Wolverines are playing for much bigger goals this season. They are currently the betting favorite to win the national championship. Stomping on Michigan State beyond necessary means does nothing to help them get closer to that. Only bad things can happen. Injury and suspension risks come with leaving the starters in longer than needed. Michigan doesn’t need to lose key players with their most difficult games ahead of them.

The other thing? The Wolverines might not even have to intentionally try to make this a blood bath. As discussed, MSU is prone to turnovers and special teams disasters. Michigan can play their game, put in their backups, and be “respectful” and still win by 40-plus. Why? Well, that’s exactly what they’ve done each of the last three weeks. So, if you’re hoping to see Harbaugh try two-point conversions and onside kicks in the fourth quarter, I think you’ll be disappointed.

But notice I said “think”. This is still Harbaugh we’re talking about. Anything is possible.


The current spread for this game is Michigan -24.5. We’ve painted a pretty grim picture for Michigan State in this game. However, it’s worth noting in this series that Michigan has not beaten Michigan State football in East Lansing by more than 17 since 1985.

If these two teams were stocks, this would be the time to buy low on Michigan State and sell high on Michigan. The Wolverines have steamrolled their last three opponents as big favorites. Right now, it doesn’t look like there is a number that they can’t cover. Michigan State, meanwhile, has fired their coach and lost four in a row. The collapse against Rutgers and the meltdown against Iowa created a few extra points here for Michigan State.

The Spartans are at home in their game of the year with a new quarterback. If what I predicted about Michigan being respectful plays out, it’s going to be tough for the Wolverines to cover this number. Over three possessions, this is too many points for Michigan State. A last-minute Sam Leavitt touchdown pass ends up on Sportscenter’s “Bad Beats” segment. Make sure you get the hook.

Prediction: Michigan 38, Michigan State 14