The 2018 preseason Congrove Computer Rankings give us a surprising Big Ten conference championship game matchup of Michigan State and Northwestern with the Spartans favored by 4.79 points to wrap up a perfect season and advancement as the top seed to the College Football Playoff.
Ultimately, the computer has Michigan State knocking out USC in the semis and facing Oklahoma in the National Championship game as a 0.15-point favorite.
The projected perfect season for Mark Dantonio's 12th squad is more written in stone than one might expect. Games versus Northwestern, Michigan and Ohio State are all in East Lansing. The only road game the computer sees as particularly tough is the trip to Happy Valley on October 13 where the Spartans are only favored by 2.92.
Beware, the last two times the computer lauded Michigan State so highly in the preseason, the outcomes were horrific. In 2009, a 12-0 forecast became a 6-6 reality. In 2016, another 12-0 projection became a 3-9 nightmare. It would be difficult to see that happening this time around, especially when the Spartans return more starters than any other FBS program - 10 on offense, 9 on defense, and 3 on special teams.
If Michigan State is to win the East division, the home game versus Ohio State appears to be a de facto playoff game as it is the only loss in Ohio State's 11-1 forecast. The Spartans are favored by 4.95 points in the November 10 showdown.
At the time of this writing, Ohio State was dealing with the prospect that Urban Meyer may not be the head coach in 2018. His July 23 firing of tight ends coach Zach Smith led to assertions that Meyer may have known about one or more incidents of alleged domestic abuse by Smith long before he took action. Meyer was placed on paid administrative leave on August 1 and Ryan Day was serving as interim head coach.
Ohio State wasn't the only program dealing with distractions.
Maryland was also reviewing the status of head coach D.J. Durkin after the offseason death of redshirt freshman Jordan McNair from heat exhaustion. At the time of this writing, Durkin was on paid administrative leave while strength and conditioning coach Rick Court was fired. Matt Canada was serving as interim head coach.
As for Northwestern securing the West conference title, the forecast of 11-1 overall and 8-1 in the Big Ten calls for the Wildcats to win a trio of tight home games. Forecasted wins over Michigan, Wisconsin and Notre Dame are each by less than a point, and the battle with the Badgers on October 27 in Evanston is expected to ultimately determine the division-winner.
Meanwhile, the computer could easily see Michigan improving on an 8-4 forecast. The Wolverines have a brutal road schedule that sends them to Notre Dame, Northwestern, Michigan State and Ohio State where they are underdogs in all 4 games, but by no more than 5.65 points in any one of those.
Penn State is another team that could improve its win total dramatically as the computer lists three swing games where there the Nittany Lions are an underdog by fewer than 3 points, and all are at home versus Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Nebraska is the only Big Ten school that will open the season with a new head coach. The Cornhuskers begin the Scott Frost era with much promise in store in the future. Frost's first head coaching gig saw him take UCF from a winless team the season prior to his arrival, to 6-7 in his first season and 13-0 last year. This year, the computer saddles Nebraska with a 5-7 forecast. However, the change in culture and attitude that Frost seems to carry with him could admittedly produce a much better result, even if the computer can't forecast it.
If the computer's forecast for Rutgers is true, people will be doing double-takes when they see the Scarlet Knights at 5-1 midway through the season. But have no fear - it's all just smoke and mirrors. In the first half of the season, Ohio State is the only team Rutgers faces that posted a winning record in 2017. In the second half of the season, only one team didn't have a winning record in 2017 (Maryland) and the other five (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State, Michigan State) averaged 10.2 victories.
*-Tie-breakers: Maryland beats Rutgers
*-Tie-breakers: Purdue beats Iowa