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Wojo’s Pigskin Picks: UM, MSU too similar for own good

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio and the Spartans will have their hands full this weekend against Penn State and star running back Saquon Barkley.

For college football fans, it’s the best time of year. It’s cold enough to tailgate without sweating, and to wear bulky jackets that conceal little brown flasks, not that anyone’s advocating it. It’s also the stretch drive for conference titles, the playoffs, the Heisman and a coveted ticket to the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl (a real event).

For teams like Georgia, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and — inexplicably — Notre Dame, major possibilities await, including the slim possibility of scoring a fluke touchdown against Alabama in the playoffs. For teams like Michigan and Michigan State, the stakes might have dropped slightly, but don’t kid yourself — the Wolverines are fully determined to defend their Big Ten East Third Place Championship.

The Spartans are a legitimate threat to unseat them. In fact, after doing a little research, I noticed Michigan and Michigan State have a lot in common this season. It seems the farther the delusional and demented fan bases push away from each other, the closer the teams become.

For instance, are you aware both have intriguing young quarterbacks who may or may not win multiple Heismans? Did you know each team fought admirably to edge Indiana? Did you realize each team knows (or soon will know) what Saquon Barkley looks like running swiftly away from them?

More: MSU’s ‘D’ up for task to contain ‘electrifying’ Barkley

The similarities are sort of eerie, even if they don’t remotely match the perceptions. The Spartans lost almost all their starters and yet are 6-2 without beating a currently ranked opponent, and are widely viewed as one of the great rebound stories in America. The Wolverines lost almost all their starters and yet are 6-2 without beating a currently ranked opponent, and are widely viewed as a symbol of underachievement and stubbornness. (#BlueWall #GreenWall).

We’ll learn more this weekend, when Michigan battles Minnesota for the Little Brown Jug, which should be fascinating because Gophers coach P.J. Fleck is known for odd motivational tactics. My sources say he might close his pregame speech by smashing little brown bottles against his forehead, but this cannot be confirmed.

Naturally, Michigan State also will play for something extra when it hosts Penn State in the annual battle for the Plain Brown Land Grant Trophy Thing, which may or may not still exist. And make no mistake, when that game kicks off at noon Saturday, the Spartans will be very much in the Big Ten race, and plan to stay there until well past 12:20 or so.

Oh, the Nittany Lions are good, fashion gaffes notwithstanding. After crushing Michigan, they spent days picking Wolverine pieces out of their cleats. Then they stomped Ohio State last weekend but started cleaning their cleats too soon and accidentally lost 39-38.

More: Detroit News college football picks: Week 10

Can you imagine taking a 35-20 lead into the fourth quarter in Columbus and somehow losing? (For Michigan fans: Can you imagine taking any lead into the fourth quarter in Columbus and somehow winning?)

It’s important to remember, Michigan and Michigan State still have all their goals in front of them, and by “all their goals,” I’m thinking “35-40 percent of their goals.” Curiously, in their quest to separate from each other, the programs have become harder to distinguish. Jim Harbaugh has long been a wrestling fan and anointed Ric Flair a friend of the program. Undaunted, Mark Dantonio struck up a Twitter friendship this week with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and in a strange twist, reportedly has been hitting up The Undertaker.

Harbaugh took his team on an excursion last spring to Rome to meet the Pope. Dantonio plans to take his team on an excursion next spring to Romeo to meet Kid Rock.

But let’s be honest here. Michigan is the program trying to catch up. A few weeks ago the Wolverines had their chance, but inexplicably chose the wrong bad-weather gear — fluffy mittens with slick plastic padding — and lost to the Spartans 14-10.

Michigan hasn’t won a Big Ten title since the Truman Administration, and just finally unveiled its Quarterback of the Future. The Spartans already have Brian Lewerke piling up 17 points in regulation against Northwestern and Indiana, and now the Wolverines have their own guy, Brandon Peters.

More: Niyo: Brandon Peters made wait worthwhile for Michigan

There was some thought Harbaugh would redshirt Peters four times in violation of NCAA rules to prepare him for the greatest senior season ever. But after John O’Korn opted to stop cleanly fielding snaps, the Wolverines had no choice but to insert Peters, who then sliced up a Rutgers defense generally eager to be sliced.

As always, Michigan fans reacted in a calm, rational manner and demanded to know why Peters didn’t start sooner over O’Korn, who was supposed to start sooner over Wilton Speight, who was supposed to start sooner over Jake Rudock, who was supposed to start sooner over Drew Henson, who was never supposed to start over Tom Brady!!

And let me add this: If you even think about mentioning the Arizona Coach Whose Name Shall Not Be Uttered and his new quarterback Khalil Tate (not Forcier), who has rushed for 840 yards in four games, you’ll be asked to leave this column immediately. Yes, you! Go!

The hard truth is, the Spartans might be teetering a bit after their triple-overtime loss to Northwestern. And Nittany Lions coach James Franklin might be anxious to prove he didn’t intentionally curl into a fetal shell against the Buckeyes. Michigan State is strongly advised not to let Barkley, or quarterback Trace McSorley, or any Penn State receiver or tight end touch the ball. It’s an unorthodox strategy, but there’s a slight chance it can work.

Pick: Penn State 38-24

Minnesota at Michigan: It’s another night game in Ann Arbor with a threat of rain, and Michigan officials are very, very nervous. Taking no chances this time, they’re hurriedly constructing an inflatable dome that should be in place by kickoff. Also, P.J. Fleck will be asked to leave his rowing oars at security. Pick: Michigan 26-16

Ohio State at Iowa: The Buckeyes are sixth in the initial CFP rankings and don’t have major obstacles left. Oh, they still must face Michigan State and Michigan and those future Heisman quarterbacks, but the Buckeyes happen to have the current Heisman quarterback, J.T. Barrett. Pick: Ohio State 37-14

Wake Forest at Notre Dame: Alternate Universe Alert — the Irish are 7-1 with each victory by at least 20 points, are No. 3 in the CFP rankings, and somehow are being overlooked. This is an outrage. Something must be done to re-inflate Notre Dame’s bloated self-worth and render it susceptible to overconfidence. I’ll do my best. Pick: Notre Dame 63-3

Oklahoma at Oklahoma State: They call this rivalry “Bedlam,” which also happens to be the term for “last call” in Stillwater, Okla. The Sooners have bucked the Cowboys repeatedly over the years but the stakes are rarely higher. The winner becomes a prime candidate to be Alabama playoff fodder. Pick: Oklahoma 42-37