While MSU has the higher poll ranking at 9 vs ND’s 20, these are two pretty similar teams. ND’s strength is in the trenches, especially the DL, and we bring a young and inexperienced starting QB to the table, with a strong running game to support him. MSU’s strength is in the trenches, they have a monster DL, and they have a strong running game to complement a young and inexperienced QB.
Looking at Football Outsiders’ stats can help us get a decent grasp of how the two teams have fared thus far this season, and perhaps a little insight into what to expect Saturday, without the vast biases of the polls. If you need a reminder on FEI, check out their site, but it’s essentially an opponent-adjusted efficiency index (eg how well you move the ball and how well you stop others from moving the ball). For stat-heads/nerds, it’s awesome.
The current rankings, linked above, largely reflect the polls except for a few notable exceptions. USC is down at #7, and Notre Dame ranks ahead of MSU.
That’s right. ND is at 9 and MSU 11. Granted, that’s really close, but ND ‘moving up’ that far shows one thing at this point: ND and MSU are a lot closer in performance to date than the human polls seem to imply.
ND’s high ranking is driven by Offensive Efficiency, with a rank of 16. MSU, in contrast, is all the way down at 41. However, on Defense, MSU is pretty dominant, with a DE Rank of 3. 3! These guys play some solid D. ND is a bit lower on the Defensive Ranking, 25th in the country. Still, not at all bad, but not currently a Top 5 D either.
Other factors that impact the overall rank are SOS to date (ND ranks 9th and MSU 52nd) and Field Position Rank (ND at 42 and MSU at 54). So ultimately this battle will come down to the ND Offense vs the MSU D. Can ND effectively move the ball against such a stout front 7? Can EG learn what he needs to learn in the next 3 days to make that leap Coach Kelly is looking for? Of course our D will have to do a good job containing the MSU running game and this season’s best opponent Running Back, but I think the test is really on the offensive side of the ball.
While the line of MSU -6 is probably not that far off given that home field is usually a 3 point dealio, ND has a legitimate chance to win this game if BK and Martin can find a way to make the running game work while keeping Golson comfortable with the passing plan of attack. I am somewhat surprised at how confident the pundits/experts are when declaring this a clear MSU win given how similar the two teams appear on paper.
I think on Saturday they’ll see that this is a pretty even match-up.