Two teams expected to break in new quarterbacks meet up for the 2021 season opener in the week 1 Michigan State at Northwestern matchup. The Wildcats are -3 point home favorites in Evanston, hoping to build on a 7-2 campaign in 2020 that ended with a dominating win over Auburn in the Citrus Bowl.
Michigan State is hoping 2021 brings some sort of normalcy after the team was just 2-5 in Mel Tucker’s first season with the team a year ago. One of those victories was a 29-20 home win over Northwestern as +13.5 underdogs in week 13, so maybe this is a good matchup for the Spartans?
Tucker Gets A “Normal” Season
Every NCAA team had an excuse to be less than perfect in the awkward 2020 COVID season, but that was especially true for the Spartans. Mel Tucker was kind of a late hire last February, and things came to an abrupt halt in his first month on the job. It’s hard to implement a new system or build chemistry with players when you must distance from them.
The Spartans were a bottom 20 team on offense last season, but they hope that improves maybe with a QB by committee approach in the week 1 Michigan State at Northwestern pick. Anthony Russo transferred from Temple where he tossed 44 TD’s over three seasons (27 games). Payton Thorne has a year in Tucker’s system, playing in four games in 2020 as a freshman.
Something that can help Michigan State alleviate some of the turnovers from a year ago is what looks to be a revamped running game. Kenneth Walker comes over from Wake Forest where he ran for 579 yards and 13 TD in just 7 games last year. Harold Joiner III also joins the backfield as an Auburn transfer, and he’s a load at 6’4″ and 231 pounds.
Expect a Decline for Northwestern Defense
Friday night’s betting total is 45.5, which seems meteoric considering the goal of both of these teams is going to be to run the ball and play solid defense. Tucker is a defensive specialist for MSU, and Northwestern led the nation in points as well as passing yards/game allowed last season.
Things change immensely on the defensive side of the ball in 2021 for the Wildcats. Coordinator Mike Hankwitz has retired, and the team brings back just 4 starters from that elite unit of a season ago. Fitzgerald is also a defensive guy, so expect him having no problem doing a plug and play – especially with 1st team All-American Safety Brandon Joseph returning in the backfield.
The offense on the other hand is not such a sure thing for the Wildcats. Peyton Ramsey offered some much needed stability at the QB position last year, but has used up all his eligibility. Former 5-star recruit Hunter Johnson will likely get the nod vs. the Spartans, but Ryan Hilinski is also in the mix after throwing for 11 TD and 5 INT as a freshman in 2019 with South Carolina.
Week 1 Michigan State at Northwestern Pick
The Wildcats lost nearly 3/4 of their starting defense from last year, is shaky at QB, and lost their top 3 rushers from a year ago due to injury or transfer. Fitzgerald is a consummate pro, but Tucker also has a lot of rebuilding to do with his defense. The two teams combined for 49 points in last year’s game, but 2021 is going to be defined by an improved defense from MSU, and a worse offense from the Wildcats.
Northwestern 21 – Michigan State 20
Free Pick: Under 45.5