Brady Hoke isn't going to Tempe just to dine on some boneless mango habs. (Photo courtesy: USA Today Sports)
Michigan Wolverines (7-5) vs. Kansas State Wildcats (7-5)
Saturday, Dec. 28th @ 10:15 PM (ESPN)
Line: KSU by 3
How Michigan got here: Coming into the season, the punditry viewed the Wolverines as contenders for the Big Ten championship. The Maize and Blue got off to a strong start with an early win over Notre Dame. Things deteriorated from there, though. UM bumbled its way to a 3-5 record in conference play and never really found itself in position to challenge for the league crown.
How Kansas St. got here: The reigning Big 12 champs took a gut punch to start the year, losing their opener to FCS stalwart North Dakota State. The Wildcats gradually rounded into their typical form as the year wore on. Purple Kansas beat the teams it should in conference play and lost to the likely suspects. Not a great year for Bill Snyder's crew, but not a really terrible one.
For Michigan to win: KSU has rotated quarterbacks this year almost from play to play as Snyder has forced defenses to stay on their toes. The Wildcats combine a single-wing running game behind option QB Daniel Sams with Jake Waters' passing game. Snyder loves to exploit opposing defenses when they get lopsided, so UM defensive coordinator Greg Mattison needs to stress staying home and playing a sound scheme.
For Kansas St. to win: The bigger questions for the Wolverines lie on offense, and the uncertainty surrounding QB Devin Gardner’s health only adds to those concerns. Assuming freshman Shane Morris gets the nod under center, KSU should force the issue on defense by stacking the box and blitzing in passing situations. The Wildcats thrive on mistakes. A QB with 9 career passing attempts will likely make a bunch.
Key player (Michigan): Taylor Lewan, OT. K-State’s Ryan Mueller didn’t get much notoriety this year, but he’s one of the country’s better pass rushers (18.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks). Lewan will likely bear the lion’s share of responsibility for keeping Mueller at bay.
Key player (Kansas St.): Tyler Lockett, WR. This is shaping up to be an ugly game, which means springing an explosive play or two could be the difference for the winner. That’s Lockett’s forte as both a receiver and return man. If he busts loose for a long score, KSU probably gets the W here.
Key stat: At the end of the regular season, Michigan ranked 32nd overall in F/+. It marked the continuation of a downward trend from 9th in 2011 to 20th in 2012. It would be hard to argue with any conviction that Brady Hoke has the Wolverines headed in the right direction. His job isn’t at risk yet, but losing here isn’t going to help his cause.