In a season that's been typically crazy for college football, it's a bit surprising that both Michigan State and Ohio State made it to this game undefeated in the conference. Both teams have tried to blow said undefeated records at different times -- the Spartans almost blew two fourth quarter leads against Nebraska and Purdue, and Ohio State needed overtime to beat Penn State in Happy Valley.
Regardless, we're here now, and this matchup is getting the big game treatment: it has a prime time slot on ABC, and College Gameday is headed to East Lansing (First Take has already aired, but the less said about that, the better). A win by either team would put said team up essentially two games in the division with three to play, thus essentially sealing the division title. Let's take a look at the Buckeyes.
Ohio State on Offense
All looked like DOOM when Braxton Miller went down for the season and freshman J.T. Barrett had to step in. It looked especially baleful after Barrett went 9 of 29 and threw three interceptions in a loss against Virginia Tech. To his credit, Barrett has played wonderfully since then save his performance against Penn State (12 of 19 for 79 yards with a TD and two picks, 20 rushes for 75 yards). I don't think it's a coincidence that Barrett has had his two worst performances against the two top S&P+ (a statistical ranking that takes into account opponent strength) pass defenses the Buckeyes have played so far (VT at 2, Penn State at 17). MSU ranks 8th in pass defense by S&P+, so hopefully the Spartan front seven can pressure the young QB.
Ohio State also had another hole to fill at running back, and while Ezequiel Elliott hasn't fully replaced Carlos Hyde (very, very, few backs would be able to), he's done a good job as the Buckeyes' main back, averaging 5.6 yards a carry. Barrett has ran the ball the second most times, but he hasn't been effective as miller, as the freshman has averaged 4.7 yards a carry. At receiver OSU has the only player in the Big Ten who has a greater yards per reception than Tony Lippett, and that's Devin Smith. Smith averages 27.2 yards a catch. The good news is that he averages only two receptions a game.
While the Buckeyes offensive line ranks 8th in the nation according to Football Outsiders, they have two significant weaknesses. First, their power success rank (percentage of runs on third and fourth down of two yards or less that go for a TD or first down) is 60th among all FBS teams. Second, their adjusted sack rate (a stat of how well the line can protect the QB) ranks 89th in FBS. My gut is that the latter is deflated a bit due to how often Barrett wants to run, but we will see.
Ohio State on Defense and Special Teams
The Buckeyes have the 12th ranked defense in FBS according to S&P+, and that's mainly due to their excellent pass defense, which ranks 11th in the same stat. Their rushing defense is 57th among all BCS teams in S&P+, and the reason S&P+ doesn't regard the Ohio State defense as highly as the "pure" stats due (OSU opponents average 3.38 yards a carry, just above the 3.29 yards a carry MSU opponents average) is because of Ohio State's strength of schedule so far. According to S&P+, the best offense the Buckeyes have played so far is Navy (28th). Even if you're not looking at advanced stats, it's not hard to look at the schedule and tell that OSU hasn't yet faced an offense with the quality as Michigan State's.
Ohio State definitely has some players on D, though, and Joey Bosa is the headliner. Bosa leads the Big Ten in sacks (10.0) and tackles for loss (14.0), and he's the odds-on favorite to win the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year trophy. You may remember him from games such as the Big Ten title game last year, where he hurried Connor Cook three times, recorded the Buckeyes' only sack of the game, and led OSU in tackles for a loss with 2.0. If MSU can deal with Bosa (a fairly big if), they should be able to buy Cook enough time to make for him to hit Lippett deep.
The Buckeye special teams are also standout. Punter Cameron Johnston hasn't technically recorded enough punts to be ranked among the Big Ten leaders, but he averages 44.0 yards a kick, has put 13 of his 20 punts inside the 20 and has recorded only two touchbacks. Sean Nuernberger is the kicker, and he's made 5 of 8 field goals from beyond 40 yards, perfectly acceptable for a college kicker or a member of the Detroit Lions.
The Big Key to the Game
Field position. Ohio State is number one in FBS when it comes to their average starting field position (on their own 40 yard line), and they have a great punter in Johnston who can pin an offense inside their own 20. MSU needs long drives in this game, even if they don't score.
This is going to be the big college football Saturday of the season in East Lansing. Yes, beating Michigan is always a treat, but this game is the one that'll have the most ramifications for the Spartans' season. Win, and that almost essentially locks up the Big Ten title game and it's one more performance towards moving up in the playoff standings. Lose, and the best MSU can do is 10-2 with a shot at a Big 6 bowl.
There's a lot on the line tomorrow. Get pumped y'all.