Seven years ago, Mel Tucker was so far out the door it wasn’t even funny. The 2013 and 2014 Bears defenses he coordinated were comically terrible. Fans counted the days until his dismissal from Halas Hall. In the end, they got their wish.
Yet here Tucker is now, the head coach of the most surprising unbeaten team in college football. No. 6 Michigan (-4) at No. 8 Michigan State (11 a.m., Fox-32) is the biggest game of his career.
Tucker’s Spartans are 7-0. Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines are 7-0. It’s the first time ever the schools will meet with records that good and the first time since 1964 they’ll have a top-10 matchup.
It’s a pretty big deal for Harbaugh, too, who is 3-3 against the Spartans and 0-5 against mega-rival Ohio State. Yes, the shadow of the Buckeyes, the mammoths of the Big Ten East, always looms.
Michigan just wants to keep its good thing going. That means taking care of the ball on offense, teeing off on defense and sticking with the hard work and discipline that seem to be the underpinnings of this team.
“Lest we be painfully humbled,” Harbaugh said.
Michigan State — despite its 9-4 record head-to-head the last 13 years — is in a familiar position as the underdog.
“We all know this is a big week and what this is all about, playing the school down the road for the Paul Bunyan Trophy,” Tucker said. “Big game for our players, for our university, for our fans, our alumni, all our former Spartan dogs. It’s a rivalry game. We understand this is not just another game.”
The history is intense. After Michigan won its seventh straight in the series in 2007, running back Mike Hart dismissed the Spartans as “little brother.” A year later, the Spartans got revenge, after which then-coach Mark Dantonio rubbed it in with five utterly perfect words: “Pride comes before the fall.” It kicked things to another level.
In 2015, Harbaugh’s first year at his alma mater, the Wolverines lost shockingly on a blocked punt returned for a touchdown with no time left. In 2018, the teams had a pregame altercation on the field. In 2020, the Spartans won as three-touchdown underdogs — talk about poking the bear.
But who wins this time? The Spartans have a Heisman Trophy candidate in running back Kenneth Walker III, but the Wolverines have snuffed out the run all season. The Wolverines’ offense has avoided mistakes, with quarterback Cade McNamara a dependable caretaker, but is that really any kind of championship plan?
It’s as hard a call as there has been all season. Wolverines, 23-17.
OTHER WEEK 9 PICKS
Rutgers (-1½) at Illinois (11 a.m., BTN): Illini QB Art Sitkowski has a broken arm, so he doesn’t get to go against his former school. That’s a shame. Then again, the Illini are one of the worst passing teams in the country with or without him. What about the Scarlet Knights? They’re not really all that good at anything. But they’re also really not that bad at anything. Knights by just enough.
No. 9 Iowa (+3½) at Wisconsin (11 a.m., ESPN): The Badgers have taken home the Heartland Trophy seven of the last nine times these schools have played, but the score last year — Iowa 28, Wisconsin 7 — was an eye-opener. Get those punters nice and loose. Hawkeyes, 17-13.
Minnesota (-7½) at Northwestern (2:30 p.m., BTN): Look at these sneaky Gophers, taking a run at the Big Ten West title even though injuries have nailed them where they were supposed to be at their best: at running back. The Wildcats have such a hard time putting points on the board, it’s a wonder they’ve won three games. Gophs, 21-16.
No. 1 Georgia (-14) vs. Florida (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): The City of Jacksonville, Florida, no longer officially refers to this annual neutral-site affair as the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” Guess how much that has affected Bulldogs and Gators fans’ drinking. Dogs lap it up, 34-16.
No. 10 Mississippi (+2½) at No. 18 Auburn (6 p.m., ESPN): Combined, these offenses pile up 990 yards per game. Where I come from, that’s almost 1,000. Ole Miss QB Matt Corral is a superstar, but Auburn QB Bo Nix can be a real animal in his own backyard. Tigers — who had an extra week to prepare for this one — 34-30.
North Carolina (+3½) at No. 11 Notre Dame (6:30 p.m., Ch. 5): Mack Brown’s squad was supposed to be better than this. QB Sam Howell has had to put the deep ball away because he’s too busy running for his life, but he’s still a dangerous dude. No safety Kyle Hamilton for the Irish? No good. Howell to Josh Downs all night — and Heels in an upset.
My favorite favorite: No. 5 Ohio State (-18½) vs. No. 20 Penn State (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7): Not sure how the Nittany Lions are supposed to pick themselves off the mat after losing at home — in nine overtimes — to Illinois. Worst possible opponent, meet worst possible time.
My favorite underdog: Arizona (+21½) at USC (6 p.m., ESPN): The Wildcats are 0-7 but — God bless ’em — they keep showing up and knocking on the door. The 3-4 Trojans are in mail-it-in mode. Make it 0-8, sadly, after another close one.
Last week: 5-4 straight-up, 4-5 vs. the spread.
Season to date: 50-25 straight-up, 43-31-1 vs. the spread.