Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.
Michigan State and Nebraska both sit at 5-1, 2-0 in Big Ten play, and have favorable schedules remaining for the rest of October before a tough November grind. Both teams seem to be improving, but both also have lost to the only good opponents (Notre Dame and UCLA, respectively) that they've faced.
Today's Take Two topic is: Which team do you buy more as a division champion, Michigan State or Nebraska?
Take 1: Adam Rittenberg
I like what I've seen from both teams the past two weeks, especially the progress with their weaker units. Michigan State's offense, a joke in the first month of the season, has taken some nice steps behind quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford, wide receiver Bennie Fowler and an improving offensive line. Nebraska's defense, also a joke in the first four games, seems to be hitting its stride as young players such as end Randy Gregory are blossoming. Then again, the Spartans' and Huskers' success must be taken in context, as neither squad has faced an upper-division foe in the Big Ten. Michigan State's win against Iowa is the best victory on either team's résumé, and that's not saying much.
Although Nebraska gets Michigan State in Lincoln on Nov. 16 and has beaten the Spartans in each of the past two seasons, I'm buying into Michigan State more. The Spartans boast the Big Ten's single best unit in a defense that leads the nation in fewest yards allowed (228.3) and fewest rush yards allowed (58 ypg), and ranks eighth in points allowed (15.8). Michigan State never needed its offense to be like Baylor's, Oregon's or Texas A&M's. It simply needed a serviceable unit that could pose some type of threat in the passing game after a 2012 season filled with drops and dysfunction.
The Spartans are moving toward respectability on offense under Cook, which should keep them in position to win every game left on their schedule. I can't fully trust Nebraska's defense until I see the Huskers shut down an offense like Northwestern's or Michigan's. There's just too much evidence of struggles in the truly big games. So right now, I'm going green (and white).
Take 2: Brian Bennett
I'm surprised that you picked Michigan State, Adam, since you ranked Nebraska ahead of the Spartans in your Top 25 this week. I'll take this as an acknowledgment that my ballot was better.
Since I did rank Michigan State and not the Huskers this week, it should be obvious where I'm going with this. I really like the progress of both teams, but I'm a little more skeptical of Nebraska. Sure, Bo Pelini's team is playing better on defense of late, but that has come against South Dakota State, Illinois and Purdue, which is not exactly murderer's row. The Huskers had strong defensive performances during long stretches last year, too, but collapsed against the best teams on their schedule.
You could make a similar schedule-based argument against Michigan State's successes, though I would say that Iowa was playing very well on defense -- particularly against the run -- until the Spartans went into Iowa City and scored 26 points (which for them is more than enough to win most games).
But for me, it's also a question of which elite unit is better. I agree with Adam that Michigan State's defense is better than any side of the ball in the Big Ten. Nebraska has an explosive offense, especially with the way Ameer Abdullah is running right now. But can Tommy Armstrong lead the team to victory in a really big game against an outstanding defense? And if Taylor Martinez comes back, can he cut down on his turnovers? This team still fumbles the ball way too much and is a little hard to trust.
You always know what you're getting with the Michigan State defense. That's why I'm buying into the Spartans more.