Originally posted on The Sports Bank  |  Last updated 11/24/11

Uncharted territory for the Big Ten this week. What happens when a team has already clinched a league championship game berth, but has nothing to play for beyond that? It’s the situation the Michigan State Spartans are currently in, as they’re bound for Indianapolis, but their only ticket to the BCS is if they beat the Penn State-Wisconsin winner next weekend.

So will they play their A-game at Northwestern? The Wildcats have a lot to play for- a seventh win guarantees them a bowl slot. They’re bowl eligible already, but the 2007 Wildcats were 6-6 and shut of a bowl. The Big Ten has nine bowl eligible teams, and will likely had a tenth (Purdue) on Saturday; to fill only eight slots. Of course, there’s at-large slots too. Nothing like beating a top ten team to help your bowl resume. And to do it in the season finale, the recency effect will help sell the team.

#10 Michigan State Spartans (9-2, 6-1) Analysis:

As usual, Tom Izzo is getting his Spartans to play hard-nosed defense. Oh wait, this is football? It’s just when you said Spartans and defense, I thought you meant college basketball.

Michigan State has a defensive unit ranked No. 3 nationally in total defense, allowing 257.3 yards per game. Only two teams have topped 400 yards of total offense against defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s unit, most recently on Nov. 5 when Minnesota put up 415 (120 rushing, 295 passing).

D Tackle Jerel Worthy (7.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) is to the unit what Beyonce is/was to Destiny’s Child. He’s got probably the highest NFL draft stock of anyone in the Big Ten, and a bad-ass tattoo. (Which you can see and learn more about here)

Here’s more about his supporting cast in the DL.

Everyone knows about star quarterback Kirk Cousins, but can you name another Spartan?? C’mon seriously? B.J. Cunningham is now the leading receiver in school history which is surprising, especially when you consider he passed up…..Matt Trannon, really? Yes, Andre Rison, Courtney Hawkins, Muhsin Muhammad, Derrick Mason, Plaxico Burress, Charles Rogers…none of them are in the top two. It just shows you how much the passing game has evolved in college football.

The reason you haven’t heard of any of their non-Kirk Cousins players is because 1.) their strength is on defense, and as well know offense is what sells. 2.) they have a lot of balance in spreading the ball around on offense. I asked Northwestern Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald about this:

“There are a lot of weapons. It starts with Kirk (Cousins), he does a great job running that offense and he’s been doing it for a number of years. They play two or three running backs, so their carries get spread out; they distribute the ball. B.J. (Cunningham) has got the most catches, but then right behind him is Keshawn (Martin). They spread the ball out to the backs. (Le’Veon) Bell’s got 24 receptions. They throw the ball to both tight ends,” he said.

Northwestern Wildcats (6-5, 3-4) Analysis:

NU’s record in November since the start of 2008 to 10-4. The Wildcats have gone 5-2
both on the road and at Ryan Field in that span. As this is senior day, I think it’s important I bring up the fact that they’ve been especially successful on senior day the past three years. They’ve beaten three teams with considerably more talent (’08 Illini, ’09 Badgers, ’10 Hawkeyes) than they have, and the last two were were both ranked in the top 20.

With 14 receiving yards against Michigan State, senior wide receiver Jeremy Ebert will become the first Northwestern pass-catcher to reach 1,000 yards for a season since D’Wayne Bates put up a school-record 1,245 in 1998.

This season, Ebert has quickly climbed NU’s all-time lists for single-season receiving yards (fourth, 986) and catches (ninth, 64) as well as joined the school’s career standard-bearers; he ranks third in career yards (2,326) and seventh.

The ‘Cats were no doubt inspired by a visit from the 1996 Rose Bowl team (the most iconic squad in school history) last week in their win over the Gophers and will now doubt carry that over this week.

Fitzgerald talked about seeing his teammates again.

“They [1996 teammates] were having a lot more fun than I was. I was gassed, so I just went to bed. But they had a great time. It was special to see them again today. We stand upon their shoulders-to go 15-1 in the Big Ten over that two-year span.

They’re a special group of guys and it’s amazing to see how successful they are at 36, 37 and 38 years old. I told Coach Barnett that he was the architect of the team. Because of the vision and great staff he had, he attracted all of us to come here and change that culture back in the mid 1990′s. To get bowl-eligible five straight years is special, but we learned five years ago, 6-6 can also keep you home. We know we have to win this week’s football game and we’re going to do everything we can to win this game.  This upcoming football game [against Michigan State] can put us in the position to definitely be in the postseason.”

NU starting tailback Jacob Schmidt was inspired too.

They were the last team to do really well here, getting to the Rose Bowl and being Big Ten champions. To listen to Steve Schnur last night and to be able to see those guys around is important to us because it shows us just how far this program has come in the last 10-15 years. The foundation that they laid, obviously, allows us to be where we are today.

Also, NU grad, former Cubs and Cardinals catcher Joe Girardi will serve as the game’s honorary captain.

Prediction to be taken with an entire truckload, not just a grain of salt: NO PICK (All-time pick record 36-19)

For the first time in Brutally Honest Preview history, I will not make a prediction in this game. I just can’t predict how many Spartans will be “injured” in this one and take a few, or a lot, of plays off. Will Mark D’Antonio play his J.V.? Or will he give it 110%? All the lip service soundbites say yes, but who knows?

Fitzgerald mentioned at the presser this week that MSU has to play for the pride of that 10th win. Hmm no, I really don’t see how much difference that makes: 10-2 over 9-3. Not a big deal.

Last year, I had this score prediction NAILED EXACTLY!…..into the final minute when Michigan State mistakenly scored a meaningless touchdown while trying to run out the clock. It was a classic example of the rare occurrences when it’s better to not score rather than score.

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net, a Google News site generating millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter Football, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports.

A Fulbright scholar and MBA, Banks has appeared on live radio all over the world; he’s also a member of the FWAA, USBWA and SPJ. The President of the United States follows him on Twitter (@Paul_M_BanksTSB) You should too.

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