CFB Predictions and Preview: Michigan Wolverines at Penn State Nittany Lions

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystOctober 17, 2019

Penn State QB Sean Clifford
Penn State QB Sean CliffordScott Taetsch/Getty Images

Michigan leads all FBS college football programs with 932 wins dating back to the 1800s. Penn State is in third place with 871 victories. And one of those teams is going to take a huge step toward the College Football Playoff with a head-to-head victory in Week 8.

As far as the AP poll is concerned, this is supposed to be the best game this Saturday. The Wolverines are still in the hunt at No. 16, while the Nittany Lions are knocking on the door at No. 7.

However, "good game" hasn't been an accurate description recently in a rivalry that has been dominated by the home team.

In both 2016 and 2018, the Wolverines defense decimated Penn State in the Big House, holding the Nittany Lions below 200 total yards in both the 49-10 and the 42-7 victories. In the year between, Penn State returned the favor with a 42-13 win during which Saquon Barkley furthered his lead in the Heisman race with 161 total yards and three touchdowns.

They haven't all been blowouts, but the trend where the home team takes care of business goes back much further. Michigan has won eight of its last nine home games in this series, but this iteration is in State College, where Penn State has won four of its last five against the Wolverines and 23 of 25 overall since the start of the 2016 season.

Best of luck to Michigan in a battle where points figure to come at a premium, as both the Nittany Lions and Wolverines rank in the top seven nationally in yards allowed per play at 3.83 and 4.20, respectively.

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This isn't surprising news. We ranked Penn State and Michigan second and fourth, respectively, in our preseason ranking of college football's top 10 defenses. Moreover, aside from Michigan's alarmingly poor showing in the loss to Wisconsin, neither of these defenses has faced anything close to an elite offense.

That pattern won't change this week. Pittsburgh held Penn State to 17 points. Wisconsin limited Michigan to 14. And both of these offenses put up fewer than 300 total yards against Iowa in the past two weeks. Though quarterback Sean Clifford has been better than even the most optimistic Penn State fan could have anticipated, it's hard to imagine either he or Shea Patterson puts on a passing clinic against an above-average secondary.

Michigan QB Shea Patterson
Michigan QB Shea PattersonPaul Sancya/Associated Press

It's harder still to envision this turns into a running back party.

Led by defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos and linebacker Micah Parsons, the Nittany Lions are leading the nation in yards allowed per rushing attempt with a paltry mark of 1.59. Their last four opponents—Pittsburgh, Maryland, Purdue and Iowa—have combined for 135 yards on 117 attempts.

Last week's 295-yard game against Illinois notwithstanding, Michigan has not been running well this season. That breakout performance against a dreadful defense snapped a streak of four games with fewer than 150 rushing yards.

But Penn State has also rushed for fewer than 200 yards in five consecutive games, while Michigan's front seven has recovered spectacularly from getting trounced by Jonathan Taylor. The Wolverines have held their past three foes—Rutgers, Iowa and Illinois—to 111 rushing yards on 102 attempts.

Both defenses hold running backs in check, but sacks have been a colossal part of that equation. Michigan has 14 sacks accounting for negative-109 rushing yards in its last two games. Penn State had 10 sacks against Purdue and has 19 for 142 yards in its last four contests.

Though it does seem like Penn State is at least marginally better than Michigan on both offense and defense, this could easily turn into a battle for field position in which neither team scores 20 points as punting and turnovers dictate the outcome.

In that case, big advantage for the home team.

Penn State LB Micah Parsons
Penn State LB Micah ParsonsScott Taetsch/Getty Images

Penn State punter Blake Gillikin doesn't have a huge leg. In fact, only one of his 28 punts this season has traveled more than 53 yards, and his average yards per punt (41.0) barely ranks in the top 75 nationally. Michigan's Will Hart (46.5) is No. 9 in that category.

But Gillikin is one of the best coffin-corner, directional punters in the game today. In the one-possession wins over Pittsburgh and Iowa, he punted 14 times combined with no touchbacks, pinning the opposition inside its own 25 on 13 of those 14 boots. The last three against Iowa were downed at the 3, 8 and 4. He has also allowed just 12 punt-return yards all season.

Meanwhile, Hart has gone 22 consecutive punts without pinning an opponent inside its 15 and has allowed 112 yards' worth of punt returns.

Granted, Penn State frequently punts from midfield, while Michigan is often punting in the shadow of its own goal post. But that reinforces that Penn State should hold an advantage in field position. Where each team tends to punt from only serves to further drive that point home.

And then there's Michigan's fumble-itis.

The Wolverines have fumbled the ball 17 times this season, losing nine of them. Only Colorado State (12 lost fumbles) has coughed up the ball more often. The Wolverines have also thrown four interceptions for a total of 13 turnovers in six games.

Penn State has only committed six turnovers (four fumbles, two interceptions), and the Nittany Lions did not give the ball away in either of their close games. Five of their six turnovers came after they had already opened up a lead of at least 28 pointsarguably an acceptable time to get a little careless or try something different.

If there's any turnover margin, it would figure to work in favor of Penn State, as does just about everything in this matchup.

That isn't to say we're destined for a margin of victory of 29 or more points for a fourth consecutive year, but all signs indicate Penn State will improve to 7-0. The Nittany Lions still have three tough road games aheadMichigan State, Minnesota and Ohio Statebut there should be a significant uptick in people talking about this team as a title contender after this weekend.

Alternatively, if Michigan pulls off the upset, it gets right back into the thick of the playoff race with home games still to come against No. 8 Notre Dame (Oct. 26) and No. 4 Ohio State (Nov. 30).

Either way, it's going to be a massive result as we surge into the second half of the college football season.


Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.