Oregon travels to Michigan State to play one of college football's biggest non-conference games of the year. East Lansing will get the GameDay treatment from ESPN and the prime 8 p.m. Eastern time slot for the game Saturday.

A win for Michigan State not only avenges last year's loss to Oregon but also enhances the Spartans' resume for the playoff committee. This is particularly important since the Spartans travel to Columbus to play Ohio State this season.

The game doesn't have quite the same implications for Oregon. However, the Pac-12 crave an Oregon win after two conference contenders, Stanford and Arizona State, had poor Week 1 showings against Power Five opponents.

Which team will win? And what matchups matter?

The cornerbacks

Last week had one big lesson for both teams: the cornerbacks struggled.

Eastern Washington, an FCS team breaking in a new QB, threw for 438 yards against Oregon. However, this total never tells the entire story for Oregon's defense.

Oregon has become famous for playing an up-tempo game. A faster pace for Oregon (and often big leads at the end of games) means the Ducks' defense faces more pass plays. It's important to account for this pace in passing statistics.

The most simple and effective means to account for pace in passing numbers is dividing total yards by attempts, or yards per attempt. Eastern Washington gained those 438 yards on 55 pass attempts for 7.96 yards per attempt, much more than the 7.07 average from last season.

Michigan State's secondary didn't fare much better. Western Michigan threw for 365 yards on 50 attempts for 7.3 yards per attempt. Corey Davis caught 10 passes for 154 yards.

It's important to not draw too many conclusions from the small sample size of one game.

However, I had questions about the cornerbacks for both of these teams in the preseason and these two games supported these doubts.

Oregon and Michigan State will score a lot of points Saturday night. The markets predict a total points scored for the game at 67, well above the average total of 56.

Pass rush

The passing game goes beyond just balls that make it in the air. To quantify pass defense, you must also consider plays that end in sacks.

This gets tricky with college football statistics since sacks count as rush plays. This doesn't make sense, as sacks began as an attempt to throw the ball.

A complete picture of pass defense accounts for sacks and the complementary lost yards. The statistics on major media sites do not make this correction. To see the yards per attempt numbers that do count sacks as pass plays, check out my rankings at The Power Rank.

Sacks don't change Oregon's pass defense numbers much against Eastern Washington. The Ducks registered one sack for an 8-yard loss. In total, their defense allowed 430 yards on 56 plays for 7.68 yards per play against an FCS team.

In contrast, Michigan State's defense had seven sacks for 39 yards lost. These plays drastically change the pass defense numbers, as they allowed 326 yards on 57 plays for 5.72 yards per play.

Last season, college football teams averaged 6.24 pass yards per play when including sacks. Sacks turn Michigan's pass defense from below to above average against Western Michigan.

With the return of defensive end Shilique Calhoun, we knew Michigan State had an elite defensive line. This unit must compensate for the deficiencies in the secondary against Oregon.


At The Power Rank, I make early season predictions based on my preseason model and data from the AP and coaches' polls. These numbers favor Oregon by less than a point, a slim margin of victory.

However, Michigan State's defensive line most likely tips the game in the Spartans' favor. They face an Oregon offensive line that had to replace two All-Americans from last season. The markets currently favor Michigan State by 4.

Ed Feng has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Stanford and runs the sports analytics site The Power Rank. Email Ed Feng here.