Nebraska (5-0) at Michigan State (3-1) Oct. 4, 8:00, ABC
Here’s The Deal: Nebraska still has to go on the road to face Wisconsin and Iowa, and Michigan State still has to deal with Ohio State and Michigan – stop laughing already; it is a rivalry game – so this might not be a preview of the Big Ten championship, but the two schools have been a part of each of the first three conference championships and at least one of them will likely make the trip to Indianapolis.
It only seems like these two might have a decent history, but this is just the ninth meeting with the first a Nebraska 24-0 shutout in 1914, followed up by a 35-7 pasting in 1920 – this is just now turning into something interesting, with last year’s 41-28 Spartan win the first in the series. This time around, the spotlight will be on to see which one will stay alive in the race for a possible spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Nebraska can lose and still be in the hunt, but it would have to win out on the way to a Big Ten title, while a two-loss Michigan State – even if it wins the Big Ten championship – would almost certainly be done. Either way, the Big Ten season could be defined here. If Michigan State wins, it’s the unquestioned star of the show and the league’s best hope to get into the fun. If Nebraska wins, then boom – 6-0, bowl eligible, the lone unbeaten conference team.
Nebraska might have been really, really shaky in the win over McNeese State a month ago, but it’s been an unstoppable machine ever since, and in the opener against FAU, scoring 41 points or more in four of the five games led by the nation’s No. 2 rushing attack. Ameer Abdullah has turned into a legitimate Heisman contender, and the defense is starting to jell into a good enough group to hold serve and let the offense do its thing.
Michigan State has played about 20 lousy minutes in its first four games, and almost all of them came late against Oregon. The other three games have been brutally ugly blowouts, with head coach Mark Dantonio making a statement about how dominant a team might have to be to get into the playoff, beating Eastern Michigan and Wyoming by a combined score of 129-28 over the last two weeks. Considering the road slate isn’t that bad, and Michigan and Ohio State have to come to East Lansing, this might be it. This might be the one big barrier between Sparty and 11-1 with a shot at the title. Or it’s Bo Pelini’s moment to show the Big Ten that he and his program are the stars.
And yeah, okay. This might be Round 1. These two are that good.
Why Nebraska Might Win: Nebraska is going to run the ball, and it’s going to run the ball well. It was able to rip off 182 yards on the ground averaging 5.7 yards per pop against the Spartans last season, and that was without a passing game. Tommy Armstrong might be inconsistent – he connected on 69% of his throws against Miami and just 48% against Illinois – but he’s providing just enough balance when needed to keep the offense moving. The Huskers have cranked out 801 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground over the last two weeks against Miami and Illinois, and while they won’t put up 400 yards against the Michigan State D, they should be more effective than even Oregon was. The Husker O line has turned into a killer, paving the way for Abdullah and allowing just three sacks on the year. Armstrong might not be Aaron Rodgers, but he shouldn’t have too much of a problem with the entire stadium having Ameer fear.
Why Michigan State Might Win: Michigan State has a bit of a running game of its own. After getting slowed to a crawl by the Oregon D, the Spartans have cranked it up big time with 336 yards on the ground and seven scores against Eastern Michigan, and 338 yards and five touchdowns against Wyoming. There’s a consistent commitment to the ground attack, running 50 times or more in three of the four games. Yeah, yeah, every year is new and every team is different, but Nebraska is 0-9 since 2008 when teams are able to run the ball 50 times or more. Add in Connor Cook and the nation’s fifth-most efficient passing game, and the Spartans are balanced, too.
Who To Watch Out For: Ameer Abdullah should’ve been a Heisman candidate last season, but no one seemed interested in noticing. He cranked out 11 100-yard games with a 98-yard day against UCLA and an 85-yard effort against Iowa – both losses, with nine touchdowns averaging over six yards per carry to go along with two receiving scores. This year, instead of getting paid lots and lots of money by the pro types, he’s turning in a special campaign with three 200-yard games and eight rushing scores, averaging 7.3 yards per pup. Held in check by McNeese State with just 54 yards and a touchdown, he made up for it with a game-winning catch-and-run for a touchdown that would be a perfect Heisman moment, except it came against McNeese State. If he has a big day against the Spartan defense and Nebraska wins, he’ll be on everyone’s top five list to go to New York.
What’s Going To Happen: Connor Cook. Nebraska missed Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt, faced a freshman in Miami’s Brad Kaaya, and didn’t really have to worry about Fresno State’s Brian Burrell or FAU’s Jaquez Johnson throwing it. The Michigan State quarterback is hitting 69% of his passes with two picks – both against Oregon – and nine touchdowns. Nebraska’s defense isn’t going to get exposed, but it’s about to have a hard time dealing with Cook through the air and Jeremy Langford – who ran for 151 yards and three scores against the Huskers last year – on the ground.
Prediction: Michigan State 34 … Nebraska 24
Line: Michigan State -7.5 o/u: 58
Must Watch Factor: 5: Gone Girl – 1: Mulaney … 4.5
Nebraska (5-0) at Michigan State (3-1) Oct. 4, 8:00, ABC