When Nebraska coach Mike Riley examines the Big Ten championship game matchup, he acknowledges there are far more similarities than differences between No. 4 Iowa and No. 5 Michigan State. The Hawkeyes and Spartans have exceptional turnover margins, their quarterbacks are efficient, and they have been able to win close games.
But Riley also sees a couple key areas that could alter the outcome of the game. And exploiting even one of them might be the difference.
"They are where they are because of the fact that they have played consistent, solid football," Riley told ESPN.com. "It's really an interesting matchup. They both have tremendous confidence going into this game. Good coaches. There's a lot of similarities."
Riley has perspective on Saturday's game because his team is one of four to have played both opponents. Nebraska also is the only team to defeat Michigan State this season and played Iowa more recently than any other team, losing 28-20 in the regular-season finale.
Nebraska's offense had success in both games, gaining 433 yards against Iowa and 499 against Michigan State -- the Spartans' highest output allowed this season. Riley said the most significant difference was Iowa's ability to stop the run. Nebraska rushed for 5.0 yards per carry against Michigan State and only 3.6 yards per carry against Iowa. Indeed, the Hawkeyes' run defense ranks sixth in the country (110.0 yards per game). The defense also forced Cornhuskers quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. into four interceptions.
"We ran the ball better against Michigan State than we had, even in previous games, which gave me great hope as that game went on," Riley said. "And it has probably nothing to do with how Iowa will approach it because they're going to approach every game by running the ball. But that was a difference for us in that game and really why in the end we didn't beat Iowa, besides turning the ball over."
Michigan State (11-1) does not rely on the run as much as Iowa (12-0), so Riley said the game could hinge on Spartans quarterback Connor Cook's ability to read Iowa's secondary. One of the most intriguing one-on-one battles will be on the outside when Iowa defensive back Desmond King presumably matches up against Michigan State receiver Aaron Burbridge. King is tied for the national lead with eight interceptions, while Burbridge ranks 14th in the country -- and first in the Big Ten -- in receiving yards per game (96.5).
During Nebraska's 39-38 victory over Michigan State on a controversial last-minute touchdown, Cook torched the Cornhuskers for 335 yards and four touchdowns. Burbridge caught 10 passes for 164 yards and a score. Riley noted that winning up front would be vital to allow Cook enough time to throw.
"I really admire Cook," Riley said. "We did not necessarily because we won just shut them down at all. He was really, really good in that game. Converted third downs. He has got a great knack of hanging in that pocket, making throws."
Iowa's offensive advantage, meanwhile, comes in its running game. The Hawkeyes run the ball on 62.0 percent of their plays compared to 56.6 percent for Michigan State. Iowa's 35 rushing touchdowns are tied for seventh nationally, and the Hawkeyes became the first FBS team to have three running backs rush for at least 195 yards in a game since LSU in 1997. Jordan Canzeri tallied 256 yards against Illinois, Akrum Wadley had 204 against Northwestern and LeShun Daniels had 195 against Minnesota.
"That's crazy," Riley said. "That's quite a stat. It says a lot about their intentions and about who they are."
If Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard can pick his spots, there is room to operate against Michigan State's pass defense. Four times this season, including against Nebraska, the Spartans surrendered at least 300 yards passing.
In the end, Riley said, the two teams are so evenly matched that one play could change the outcome. Iowa is 4-0 in games decided by single digits, while Michigan State is 5-1 in such games. Both teams are tied for third nationally in turnover margin at plus-14.
"With the way these teams have played, they've won by being pretty much what you would call in general mistake-free where they haven't hurt themselves," Riley said. "I'm wondering if something like that will be the turning point in a game like this. If one team can take advantage or force the team into a mistake that they're not accustomed to [making], it could be the difference."
One team keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings will be No. 6 Ohio State. It seems unlikely the Buckeyes will leap into the top four, but they could wind up in the Rose Bowl as the second-highest rated team in the Big Ten. Michigan State beat Ohio State 17-14 to knock the defending national champions out of the league title game.
Ohio State linebacker Joshua Perry has been particularly impressed watching Iowa on TV and described the Hawkeyes' offensive line as "a machine" and their defense as "really stout." Michigan State, for what it's worth, is considered a three-point favorite in most Las Vegas betting circles.
"I think a lot of people are expecting it to be lopsided in favor of Michigan State, but when you’ve got a 12-0 team, that's kind of ridiculous," Perry said. "I think it’s going to be a really good game."