Michigan State vs. Northwestern Odds, Pick, Prediction: The Bet to Make for Friday’s Big Ten Showdown
Icon Sportswire / Getty Images. Pictured: Jalen Nailor
- After an Ohio State-Minnesota matchup on Thursday, the Michigan Spartans and Northwestern Wildcats will take the field Friday to keep the Big Ten show rolling.
- The Wildcats lose a lot of production from their West Division champion team last season, giving the Spartans a slight edge.
- Thomas Schlarp breaks down the game below and shares a betting pick based on his analysis.
Michigan State vs. Northwestern Odds
Michigan State didn’t win often in Mel Tucker’s first season (2-5), but when the Spartans did, they sure did made count with a win in the Big House over Michigan and an upset of then-No. 8 Northwestern.
Outside of maybe Indiana, Northwestern was the biggest surprise in the Big Ten in 2020, reaching its second Big Ten Championship game in three years and putting up a decent fight against Ohio State.
Both programs underwent major roster overhauls in the offseason, with Sparty busy dipping into the transfer portal while the Wildcats have a litany of holes that need replacing after graduation and the NFL Draft.
This game should serve as an excellent litmus test for both teams to gauge where each will stand this season, but who can start out the new year on the right foot?
The one thing Tucker has made abundantly clear in his short time in East Lansing is that he wants his player to buy into a certain culture. If they’re not invested, get out.
Since November, the Spartans lost 27 players to the transfer portal, while welcoming 19 transfers of their own to go with 14 scholarship freshmen.
With 33 new players in tow, this team will look completely different from 2020 and should hopefully cut down some of the wild inconsistencies from last season that made them such a bad candidate to wager on (2-5 ATS).
Despite such an influx of new faces, Michigan State still brings back an Offensive TARP of 77%, thanks largely in part to the experience the Spartans are inheriting at the quarterback and running back position from the transfer portal.
Tucker has kept quiet on who will start at quarterback, but Michigan State brought in sixth-year player Anthony Russo from Temple to compete with Payton Thorne — who started only the final game last season against Penn State — to compete for the job.
Russo likely has the leg up to start at Northwestern based on his body of work over 26 career starts and nearly 6,300 passing yards, but the difference between him and Thorne is negligible.
Whomever offensive coordinator Jay Johnson ends up starting, the Spartans should see moderate improvement at the position over the turnover-prone Rocky Lombardi of last season who has since transferred to Northern Illinois.
The running back position for Michigan State will see the biggest jump in talent and production this season. Wake Forest transfer, Kenneth Walker III, averaged 5.3 yards a carry on 217 attempts last year, and his 13 rushing touchdowns were 13 more than the entire Michigan State running back room.
He’s a welcome addition to a rushing attack that ranked 126th in Rushing Success last season and didn’t have a single player rush for at least four yards a carry.
While Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave will receive all the rightful love for being the best pass-catching tandem in the Big Ten, Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed aren’t all that far behind.
Nailor and Reed were sixth and 13th in the conference in receiving yards per game, respectively, and when you consider the play of Lombardi last season, that’s a fairly significant milestone.
The offensive line will also be improved, as all 35 starts from 2020 return as well as the addition of Arkansas State transfer Jarrett Horst.
The transition on defense will be a little shakier. The defensive TARP stands at 64%, and the Spartans are tasked with replacing linebacker Antjuan Simmons’ production and leadership.
The strength of this unit will be on the defensive line where defensive tackle Jalen Hunt has the potential to be one of the more prominent breakout players in the conference this season.
With the experience at the ends from Jacub Pansiuk and Drew Beesley, Michigan State stands to improve upon its 29th-ranked Defensive Rushing Success metric from 2020, although there’s a lot to be desired from this group in terms of pass rush.
The secondary could also be an area of concern. At one point this offseason, Michigan State was down to one scholarship cornerback, but the addition of three Power Five transfers as the position will help. There are worse teams to face than Northwestern while the group works on chemistry.
Northwestern put a real hole in the argument that winning teams need five-star recruits as the Wildcats won their division while fielding one of the best defenses in program history.
Pat Fitzgerald will have his hands full this season in the midst of a small rebuild as Northwestern’s win total sits at 6.5 in a 12-game season, despite going 7-2 a year ago.
Other than Alabama, no offense was decimated more by departures this offseason than the Wildcats who return an offensive TARP of just 28%. For some reason, I think the Tide will be slightly more adept at replacing the lost talent.
Northwestern had a quarterback battle of its own this offseason, but unlike Tucker, Fitzgerald showed his hand in naming former Clemson signal-caller Hunter Johnson the starter over South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski.
Johnson was the top-rated pocket passer in the class of 2017 before transferring to Northwestern in 2018, but he’s only thrown 108 passes in two eligible seasons, and the last time we saw him start for five games in 2019, he threw one touchdown to four interceptions.
Northwestern and second-year play-caller Mike Bajakian loved to run the ball last season, something they did at over a 58% clip despite an inefficient ground game (114th in Rushing Success), but the Wildcats took a big hit in losing running back Cam Porter for this season during the offseason.
The Wildcats will now turn to Evan Hull and Bowling Green transfer Andrew Clair at the position instead.
The offensive line will be an area of strength with tackle Peter Skoronski being one of the best in the nation. T
he receiving corps returns 2020 opt-out JJ Jefferson and Kansas transfer Stephon Robinson Jr., but overall, this unit should regress in 2021.
There’s no replicating a 2020 defense that finished first in nearly every defensive FEI metric and returns just 50% of Defensive TARP, not to mention losing 13-year defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz.
In terms of continuity, Northwestern’s biggest area of strength will be among the defensive line with Adetomiwa Adebawore and 2020 opt-out Samdup Miller leading the way. Miller led the team in tackles and sacks in 2019, so that should give the defense a boost in Sack Rate and Rushing Success, which were mediocre at best last year.
The linebackers, however, take a big hit with the departures of Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher. Cornerback Greg Newsome II was also one of the best in the business.
Brandon Joseph and his Big Ten-leading six interceptions return to what was one of the best secondaries in the nation — one that ranked fifth in Passing Success.
Michigan State vs. Northwestern Matchup Analysis
Toggle the dropdowns below to hide or show how Michigan State and Northwestern match up statistically:
Michigan State Offense vs. Northwestern Defense
Northwestern Offense vs. Michigan State Defense
Pace of Play / Other
Michigan State vs. Northwestern Betting Pick
As mentioned earlier, this game is going to be very telling about what type of teams Michigan State and Northwestern will be in 2021.
My initial instinct was to look at the total (45). The Wildcats and Spartans were in the bottom of the conference last season, averaging 24.7 and 18.0 points per game, respectively, but there’s too much personnel turnover among the offenses to hint at any sort of consistency to that from 2020.
The better play here is the moneyline. This game on a neutral field would essentially be a pick’em, and while Friday’s contest takes place at Ryan Field, Michigan State is 6-1 straight up in its last seven trips there.
Although Michigan State’s final record may not show it with a trip to Miami and the unforgiving Big Ten East, I’m high on the Spartans to take a significant step in the right direction under Mel Tucker. I’m particularly optimistic on offense with a quarterback who doesn’t continually shoot the team in the foot with turnovers.
Northwestern’s defense won’t be nearly as good this season, and the offense is a work in progress, especially in Week 1 with so many moving parts.
For that reason, I’m confident enough to not even need the points with Michigan State, as I see the Spartans beating Northwestern for a third straight year by close to a touchdown.