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Game of the Week: Michigan State at Oregon

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Though Wisconsin did not ultimately win against LSU last week in Houston (despite a 24-7 second half lead), the free pick analysis got off to a great start in Week 1 as the Badgers (+5) and OVER (50) both covered in LSU's 28-24 victory. Similarly high profile teams square off this week, with a couple very notable differences. As a game between two top ten teams in just about any poll, Michigan State heading to Oregon is a high profile national game. Those looking for drama, however, should look elsewhere as there are 24 FBS vs. FBS games projected to be closer this Saturday alone. Unlike some of the top matchups that highlighted Week 1, this game takes place in Oregon on the Ducks home field, which is an above average home field advantage and means a net seven point difference (in Oregon's favor) from playing this game in East Lansing. That's not the only reason why the Ducks win, let alone cover, however, as Oregon should make enough plays defensively against a relatively uninspiring Spartans' offense to win going away.

Oregon currently ranks second overall in our updated Week 2 College Football Power Rankings. The Ducks rank second in offense and 21st in defense. From an efficiency standpoint, Oregon ranks in the top six in the nation in run and pass offense and run and pass defense. Florida State is the only other team in the country that can say that. In addition to getting this game at home, the Ducks are balanced and deep. And while deep and rich with talent at just about every position, starting quarterback Marcus Mariota himself is worth about 16 points to his team against an average opponent. As good as Oregon is, we are essentially saying that this would be a 50/50 game without Mariota.

Oregon returns 13 starters (plus punter/kicker Matt Wogan) from a team that went 11-2 straight-up and 7-5 against-the-spread while facing the nation's 29th ranked strength of schedule in 2013. Seven of those returning starters come on the offensive side of the ball, notably Mariota and starting running back Byron Marshall. Oregon finished third in the country last season, scoring 45.5 points a game. The Ducks also only allowed 20.5 points a contest, which was good for 13th overall (despite taking on a top 30 schedule). Few teams are as dominant as Oregon when the Ducks are at their best. The team averaged almost exactly three more yards per play than its opponents last season (7.55 to 4.61), while also running an average of 75 plays a game. The high tempo forces opposing defenses to stay in base packages and rarely substitute. It also puts incredible pressure on opponents' offenses to make the most of each possession and, with leads often built early, throw the ball down field more than may generally be the case. Pro style, methodical, physical, defensive-oriented teams like Michigan State (and its Pac-12 comparable Stanford) do tend to do better than expected against Oregon, but usually not with just a week to prepare and when not having faced Oregon or similar teams often in the past.

Thought a top ten team in the eyes of many (if not most), Michigan State comes in 11th in the Predictalator's Power Rankings. Even with just five returning starters on that side of the ball, Mark Dantonio's Spartans have the best defense in the country, ranking second against the pass and first against the run. However, MSU only ranks 54th overall in offense - 34th in passing efficiency and 57th in running the ball. Junior quarterback Connor Cook excelled as a sophomore starter at not turning the ball over (six interceptions on 380 attempts), but he also only completed 58.7% of his passes for 7.2 yards-per-pass (by comparison, Mariota completed 62.5% of his passes for 9.5 yards-per-pass on almost exactly the same number of attempts). Furthermore, while senior running back Jeremy Langford also returns from a relative breakout season, his 4.9 yards-per-carry ranked just 47th of the 52 runners with more than 1,000 yards in 2013 (for comparison purposes, Byron Marshall ran for 6.2 yards-per-carry and also topped 1,000 yards).

Michigan State went 13-1 straight-up (8-4 against-the-spread) in 2013, yet faced just the 51st ranked FBS schedule (that includes both the Big Ten Championship game and Rose Bowl - MSU's 2013 regular season schedule was outside of the top 95 in the nation). The Spartans out-scored those opponents by an average score of 29.4 to 13.2. Whereas Oregon out-gained opponents by almost three full yards, Michigan State out-gained its oppnents by just over one yard-per-play (5.40 to 4.04).

A very strong defensive team, the UNDER covered in two-thirds of the Spartans' games last season as well. We are expecting this to be a lower scoring game than the line would suggest and a much lower scoring game than Oregon is used to. Lower scoring games tend to favor the underdog, but that's not the case this week. Michigan State lacks the efficiency and explosive play ability on offense to hang with the Ducks. It may be close (and likely very low scoring) for a half or so as Oregon works to figure out the Spartans' defense, but, as soon as the Ducks are able to build a sizable lead, the Spartans lack what is necessary to respond and remain competitive.

According to 50,000 games played by the Predictalator, Oregon wins on average 69 percent of the time and by an average score of 34-17. As 12 point favorites doubling up the Spartans to win by 17, Oregon covers the spread 56.8 percent of the time, which would warrant a $46 wager from a normal $50 player. The UNDER (58) is actually a slightly stronger play, covering 56.9 percent, enough to justify a $47 play from a normal $50 player. There are exactly ten stronger totals and ten stronger against-the-spread picks on Saturday.

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