The Michigan Wolverines and the Michigan State Spartans will meet on the football field Saturday afternoon for the 113th time. The teams will kick off at noon at a nearly empty Michigan stadium in Ann Arbor.
Sports commentator John U. Bacon joined Michigan Radio's Doug Tribou for a preview.
An early stumble for the Big Ten
Big Ten football got through its first week of games under its new COVID-19 rules, but Week 2 is already down a contest. New COVID-19 cases on the Wisconsin team forced the cancellation of the Badgers' game with Nebraska. That's despite the fact that the Big Ten started later than some other major conferences and had extra time for planning.
Bacon says without a "bubble" system to isolate players and coaches, there are going to be outbreaks.
"COVID does not care about your football schedule," Bacon says. "We certainly hope for their good health going forward, but it is the start of what will be a very tricky fall."
A complex formula
In addition to serious health concerns, the season also presents logistical issues. Because teams have no bye weeks, there are no postponements in the Big Ten this year. If a game can't be played, it's just canceled. That forced the Big Ten to create a complicated set of tiebreakers for the conference championship game.
Teams are scheduled to play eight regular-season games. Then all teams will play the following week with two teams in the championship and the rest in East-West matchups based on standings.
"I'm predicting right now they're not going to play nine games because the Big Ten started much later than the SEC and the ACC in the South. There are no open days to make up games," Bacon says.
"So right there, Nebraska and Wisconsin are at eight games, and that's only the second week of the Big Ten season. Honestly, the champion could be 6-0. That's how few they might play."
Tough start for MSU
New MSU head coach Mel Tucker had a tough debut. Rutgers came to East Lansing in Week 1, scored 38 points, and beat the Spartans. Now, Tucker has his first game as head coach in MSU’s rivalry series with Michigan.
The 2020 season may be strange, but Bacon says a win over an old rival will be just as sweet for either team.
"The Paul Bunyan trophy [has been] around since 1953, given to the winner of the Michigan-Michigan State game," he says. "I guarantee you this: for all the asterisks this season, you will not find one on the metal plate of that trophy. Whoever wins that one, it counts."
Michigan's new quarterback starts hot
Michigan, on the other hand, had a solid opener. The Wolverines went to Minnesota and left with a 49-24 win. All eyes were on Michigan's new starting quarterback Joe Milton, who threw for 225 yards and a touchdown.
"Probably the best debut of any Michigan quarterback I can recall because in the first game against a good team, a ranked team, playing on the road, you expect a certain number of, broken plays, turnovers and zone. Milton had none of those things," Bacon says. "He's got a powerful arm. We knew that. Surprisingly good runner [for his size], but really good judgment. And he needs to do this week is do it again. That's the hard part."
Rivalry games in college football have a way of playing funny tricks on teams that seem favored to win.
"[Former Michigan coach] Bo Schembechler himself always said you make the most progress from your first game to your second game. Michigan State will probably play play a much better game this week than it did last week," Bacon says. "And nobody is better historically at upsetting Michigan than Michigan State. It's not even close. So the voodoo is still in the air. Trust me."
A very unusual atmosphere
The only fans in the Big House Saturday - and for any game this season - will be players' family members.
The U of M Athletic Department has also announced all the parking lots near the stadium will be closed this fall. No tailgating is allowed on campus.
The MSU-Michigan game also happens to fall on Halloween. Concerns about large gatherings that could spread COVID-19, led the Ingham County Health Departments to issue new restrictions for parts of East Lansing.
Outdoor gatherings had been limited to 25 people statewide. That number is now reduced to 10.
Bacon hopes the weekend's festivities don't turn in superspreader events.
"I'm not a doctor. I'm a history major, so I'm not even close," Bacon says. "But you don't have to be a doctor to figure out, 'Hey, masks seem to help.' So my idea is masks, and ... the advice from Ingham County is good. Try to follow it."
Editor's note: Quotes in this story have been edited for length and clarity. You can hear the full interview at the top of the page.