To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. All this week, across every Power 5 league, we’re looking at what it takes to reach the top.
In the Big Ten, Michigan State stands at the pinnacle. The Spartans are 36-5 the past three seasons with two conference titles, a trio of top-10 national finishes and a berth in the College Football Playoff to cap last season. Coach Mark Dantonio’s teams have won with grit and good fortune, with offense and defense and special teams, with continuity on the coaching staff and thorough development in the program.
Realistically, not every team in the Big Ten is ready to challenge for a spot at the top. For those in position to make the next move, we’re ready to break it down, continuing Tuesday with the Michigan Wolverines.
How they can catch Michigan State: Catch is a key, if painful, word here. If punter Blake O'Neill just catches that snap at the end of last year's game against the Spartans ... well, you know the rest. Michigan had that Oct. 17 game in the Big House won, and it would have tied them for the East Division championship had the Wolverines quite literally held on (Ohio State would then have gone to the Big Ten title game; catching the Buckeyes remains an even bigger issue for Michigan). The good news is, at least Michigan knows it's not that far away from beating its in-state rival, which hasn't been the case all that often recently. Michigan State has won seven of the past eight against the boys from Ann Arbor, and five of those victories have come by at least 14 points. Dantonio's team has had a decided edge in toughness in recent clashes for the Paul Bunyan Trophy, but Jim Harbaugh's arrival has at long last closed the gap.
What’s standing in their way: Not much, really. It's hard to argue that the Spartans have a big talent advantage over Michigan, especially after they lost several key seniors from last year's Big Ten champs, including two All-America offensive linemen and quarterback Connor Cook. In fact, the Wolverines will have a solid edge in experience and returning All-Big Ten performers (Jabrill Peppers, Jourdan Lewis, Jake Butt, Jehu Chesson, etc.) heading into 2016, though both teams will be breaking in new starting QBs. What Michigan really has to do is solve Michigan State's defense. In the four games before last year's matchup, the Wolverines managed a total of 43 points versus the Spartans. Even last year, they scored just two touchdowns while enjoying excellent field position much of the day. The running game has been ineffective in recent years against Dantonio's defense (just 2.1 yards per carry in the past two years combined), so Harbaugh will have to find new and better ways to attack the Spartan Dawgs.
X-factor: The young guys. How much can the studs in Harbaugh's decorated 2016 recruiting class help right away? The class includes the nation's No. 1 recruit, defensive lineman Rashan Gary, and one of the country's top running back prospects, Kareem Walker. We should not expect too much from them right away as true freshmen, but by the time this year's game rolls around on Oct. 29, they'll have had a chance to get their feet wet. Some extra elite talent might be enough to finally tilt the scales back toward Michigan.