The Legends division race finally begins to take shape this month, and the result of Saturday's game between No. 21 Michigan and No. 22 Michigan State could go a long way toward determining which team reaches Indianapolis. In fact, Michigan State can take a significant step toward locking up the division crown by beating Michigan on Saturday afternoon. The Spartans would be 5-0 in league play with three division games left (Northwestern, Nebraska, Minnesota). Michigan already has one conference loss, albeit a cross-division one, but needs a victory Saturday to keep its main goal -- a Big Ten championship -- in the viewfinder.
Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg and Michigan/Big Ten writer Chantel Jennings both will be at Spartan Stadium on Saturday, and they discussed some key questions entering the matchup.
A lot is on the line for this game, but which team gains more from a win or loses more from a loss?
Rittenberg: It's definitely Michigan. The Wolverines already have a conference loss and essentially would be three games behind Michigan State if they fall Saturday in East Lansing. They would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker and would need either Michigan State to lose out or a multi-team tie with two losses apiece. Keep in mind that Michigan also has the tougher remaining schedule. Both teams play Nebraska and Northwestern -- Michigan State faces both on the road -- but Michigan also faces unbeaten Ohio State on Nov. 30, while Michigan State doesn't play the Buckeyes. A Michigan State loss isn't a backbreaker by any means. The Spartans would have two weeks to prepare for Nebraska, the only Big Ten team Mark Dantonio has yet to beat, and still would have a decent chance to win out and claim the division crown at 7-1.
Jennings: I agree. From a league race perspective, the Wolverines need this if they want to remain competitive in the Legends division. However, this game is also huge from an emotional/fan base perspective. Michigan will be extremely restless with a loss to MSU this season. The Wolverines also dropped one to Penn State earlier, so losing to Michigan State and possibly Ohio State later this year could mark Hoke's least successful season in Ann Arbor.
Michigan's defense has a lot of questions to answer after its performance against Indiana. How do the Wolverines respond?
Rittenberg: I don't buy into bye weeks as much as others, but the added prep time allowed Michigan to press the reset button on defense after having few answers against the Hoosiers. Linebacker Jake Ryan should benefit as he works his way back to 100 percent from the knee injury. Michigan State has displayed better passing ability in recent weeks, but the Spartans won't challenge Michigan's secondary nearly as much as Indiana did. It really comes down to Michigan's defensive line and whether the front four can slow down emerging Spartans back Jeremy Langford and pressure Connor Cook. Wolverines end Frank Clark has some good numbers, but I'm still waiting for him to dominate a game. Where is the star power on this Wolverines defense? This would be a good time for it to show up, as Michigan State seems to be gaining confidence on offense, especially along the line.
Jennings: I really don't know. And that sounds like a cop-out answer but having covered this team, it's just so hard to say how they'll respond or how they'll show up or how they'll play. And I do think how a team responds is a bit different than how it'll play. The Wolverines could respond well and come out strong, but the big test will be if they can sustain that through four quarters. This group has just been so inconsistent -- they might be the best in the Big Ten at being inconsistent -- and this is such a physical game. I think we'll find out a lot about the Wolverines' mental fortitude after a few big hits on Saturday.
Michigan State's offense has been a wild card this season -- really bad early on but better in three of the first four Big Ten games. Which Spartans offense shows up Saturday?
Jennings: Connor Cook has gotten better and better every game, and I think the Spartans' offense is settling into a groove. The Michigan defense is still a big question mark, but they're far from perfect and have struggled with finishing on big plays through the season. Cook will have his opportunities down field, and if Langford can start by slashing the Michigan D up front, those opportunities probably will multiply through the game.
Rittenberg: It really comes down to the Michigan State offensive line, a group I've criticized in the past but one that has made noticeable strides during Big Ten play. If the Spartans control Michigan's defensive front, create some room for Langford and allow Cook to make plays against a defense thinking run-first, run-second, they'll be in good shape to win. I can't fully trust this unit after the Purdue debacle two weeks ago, but wide receiver Bennie Fowler seems to make a big difference, and he returned last week against Illinois.
Which position group on either side of the ball will be the MVP (most valuable position group) come Saturday evening?
Jennings: Michigan State's defensive line. If the Spartans' defensive front can establish a solid pass rush and get Devin Gardner out of his comfort zone, then good things could happen -- three-and-outs, interceptions, poor decisions. It might be the linebackers or defensive backs finishing off the plays, but they'll happen because the defensive line was stout.
Rittenberg: I picked Michigan State to win, so I'll also go with a Spartans defensive unit: the secondary. Michigan can attack downfield with Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess, which will force the Spartans to make plays in space. Fortunately for MSU, it has the type of defensive backs who can do that and match up in single coverage. I can't wait to see Spartans cornerback Darqueze Dennard, a potential first-round draft pick next April, go against Gallon. You're right that Michigan State's front four must apply pressure, but at the end of the day, I think we'll be talking about the secondary.
This is the first time Michigan and Michigan State have played in November since 2007 (Mike Hart "little brother" game). How intense is this rivalry now, and where do you see it going in the East division beginning next season?
Rittenberg: Well, Michigan running back Fitzgerald Toussaint certainly added some fuel this week, repeating Hart's "little brother" tag for Michigan State and talking about the personal nature of the rivalry. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio undoubtedly will bring up Toussaint's comments to his players. Dantonio has done a masterful job of playing up the rivalry, much like his mentor Jim Tressel did at Ohio State with the Michigan game. Michigan State won four straight in the series before falling last year in Ann Arbor, and the Spartans will have plenty of emotion on Saturday afternoon. Can Michigan match it? Brady Hoke told me this week that Michigan "flinched" too many times in 2011 in East Lansing, as Michigan State overwhelmed the Wolverines, personal fouls and all. This is a bigger game for Michigan than Michigan State, as a loss likely means another year without a Big Ten title. I'm very interested to see how Michigan comes out on Saturday.
Jennings: I think it's pretty heated. Specifically for Michigan, the Wolverines have a terrible taste in their mouth from the last time they visited Spartan Stadium. They were embarrassed and beaten up the last time they traveled to East Lansing, and for a group that prides itself on its physicality, that was the biggest insult. A loss is bad. But losing because you were manhandled and bullied is the worst. So not only are the Wolverines fighting for the top of the division, they're also fighting to regain their identity within that stadium. They haven't had to reestablish themselves like that inside an opponent's stadium yet under Hoke.