It’s not that often that a Big Ten Championship can be considered a lookahead game, but that’s exactly what we have on our hands right now. After annihilating Ohio State on their home field, Michigan have moved up to #2 in the nation, and even made a good case for the top spot. Their reward, for now, is a berth in the conference championship game, against an unranked Purdue. The Boilermakers have had a couple of shaky wins and rough losses, but they finished the year strong with three consecutive wins, including one on the road over then-ranked Illinois. So, the Wolverines are heavy favorites, but they can’t take this one for granted against a team playing for a spot in the Rose Bowl. Let’s take a look at the odds and make some picks for this conference title matchup.
Michigan Vs. Purdue Odds
Unshockingly, Michigan is a significant favorite at -17, a big line for a championship game but understandable given the circumstances. The scoring total is set at 52, pretty standard for a Big Ten game this year.
Michigan Vs. Purdue Prediction & Pick
After a magical 2021 season, many thought Michigan might be primed for a letdown. I definitely would count myself as part of that group. But they defied the odds, and were markedly better than a year before; they righted the wrong of losing to Michigan State, stayed undefeated throughout the regular season, and a year after finally beating Ohio State in Ann Arbor, they went into Columbus, essentially without the services of their best player, and won by more than they did a year earlier. This team is on a roll, and they might make the College Football Playoff even with a loss to Purdue, but they wouldn’t want to roll the dice like that, and back-to-back conference champions has a great ring to it. A huge storyline will be the status of former Heisman candidate running back Blake Corum, who was basically absent in the Ohio State game after picking up an injury against Illinois; he took 2 carries to test his knee, but seemed to be in discomfort and never saw the field again.
For Purdue, it’s been quite the up and down season. They started 1-2 after close losses against Penn State and on the road against what at the time was a very hot Syracuse team, then ripped off four consecutive wins including three in the conference, one of which was a ranked road win. Then, they lost an uncompetitive one against Wisconsin and suffered a baffling blowout at the hands of Iowa before righting the ship with those three wins in a row to finish with a very solid 8-4 record. They’ve done it with a pretty average and very balanced offense, and a slightly shaky defense in another exciting year under Jeff Brohm.
Normally, even when I have to make a pick, I give the advice to stay away from broad spreads like this one. This is not one of those times. Michigan are, by my estimation, the best team in the country this year. They have an absolutely stifling defense, despite losing an unbelievable pass-rushing duo, and their offense just ran for over 200 yards in one half without their Heisman-candidate running back, on the road against a top-5 opponent. This is a juggernaut, plain and simple, and I have no idea how Purdue, at a neutral site, is supposed to keep it remotely as close as Ohio State did at the horseshoe. I’m all over the spread in this one, it could be anything up to 21 and I’d still be about it. The total is a bit tougher, but I do think Michigan can get most of the way there on their own, and Purdue should be able to chip in a couple late scores if the Wolverines take their foot off of the gas pedal.
Michigan Rushing Offense vs. Purdue Run Defense
With or without Corum, the run game is the heart and soul of the Michigan offense. JJ McCarthy and the passing attack had a shockingly great showing against Ohio State, but don’t be fooled, this team’s game plan is still going to be to come out and run the ball downhill, especially against an opponent like Purdue, against whom they should be able to dictate the pace more than they did against the Buckeyes. The Wolverines are averaging 244.5 rushing yards per game, fifth-most in the country, and while much of this has obviously come through Corum, he’s far from the only contributor. Donovan Edwards has missed some time, but averages 7.5 yards per carry and has put up almost 700 ground yards in 9 games, while also being a threat on screens and short passes. When he gets his carries, he’s a candidate to have a huge game; he racked up 173 yards and 2 scores against Penn State’s vaunted run defense, and then of course the herculean 216 yards to go along with another pair of scores while less than 100% healthy against Ohio State. McCarthy is also a threat on both scrambles and designed runs, he’s picked up more than a couple of big first downs and scores with his legs. Pair these talented athletes with what PFF considers to be the 22nd-best run-blocking offensive line in the nation, and we’re talking about a seriously efficient machine.
To be blunt, Purdue as a team is not really built to counter a rushing attack like Michigan’s. They have the 97th-best run defense in the nation as per PFF, and are giving up just short of 130 ground yards per game. The top four qualifying run defenders on the team in PFF’s grading system are all secondary players, led by safety Sanoussi Kane, who has been great coming up to stop the run. The best-graded player in the front seven is d-lineman Cole Brevard, who’s missing almost 17% of his tackles. If we narrow it down to players who have defended the run for 200 snaps or more, the best front seven run-stopper is edge rusher Jack Sullivan, who hasn’t missed any tackles but doesn’t have a particularly impressive stop rate or average depth of tackle. The linebacking corps, anchored by Jalen Graham and OC Brothers, can only be described as a mess. It could be a very long day for Purdue’s defense against Michigan’s ground game; they can expect a steady diet of rushes until they prove they can stop them.
Purdue Passing Offense vs. Michigan Air Defense
If Purdue is going to be able to score enough to stay in this one, it’s probably not going to be via long, methodical drives- I’d expect them to be looking for home-run passes early and often. PFF thinks that QB Aidan O’Connell has been pretty average, but he’s put up some pretty decent numbers, although certainly a step down from last year. Still, he has the ability to rip off the occasional big game like in those key wins against Syracuse and Maryland, and Purdue are only going to have a chance if he plays at his ceiling. The good news is that he once again has a veritable star top wideout in Charlie Jones, a two-time transfer (from Buffalo and then Iowa) who is just three catches shy of 100, a yard beneath 1200, and has grabbed 12 touchdowns as well. Target- and yardage-wise, it’s been egalitarian elsewhere, and tight end Payne Durham has 8 touchdown catches as well- combined with Jones’s 12, that’s 20 of Purdue’s 25 total air strikes. Those two will be key for Michigan’s secondary to keep an eye on in this one. To top it all off, the Boilermakers have the 52nd-best pass-blocking line in the nation, anchored by excellent guard Spencer Holstege and the interior line, although it’s worth noting that the tackles have struggled a bit.
Michigan’s air defense has been almost as excellent as their ground offense; despite relegating their opponents to a ton of garbage time passing scenarios, they’ve allowed just 177.3 passing yards per game, the 11th-lowest figure in the country. Sure enough, PFF says they are the 5th-best coverage unit in the country, and #27 when it comes to pass rush. Unlike a year ago, both are well-rounded groups, not held together by stars at the top, but there are a few standout performers. Edge rusher Mike Morris has been excellent, although he’s an injury question right now, as has interior lineman Mazi Smith. The secondary has been even more consistently great; freshman corner Will Johnson has been an immediate star, safeties Rod Moore and Makari Page have both put in great seasons, DJ Turner and Gemon Green have been great at corner alongside Johnson and even converted wideout Mike Sainsritil has been a major contributor as a DB, including a huge end zone pass breakup against OSU. It’s an excellent pass defense, and as good as Purdue can be on their best day, they’re going to have a tough time succeeding where CJ Stroud and co. have now twice failed.