It’s a matchup of a team that should be 8-1 (Penn State) and one that is (Michigan).

Imagine how much buzz Saturday’s Big Ten East showdown could have had. Imagine the electricity Beaver Stadium would be putting out if only Michigan (8-1, 5-1) hadn’t choked away a 14-point lead in its 37-33 loss to Michigan State 2 weeks ago.

Odds are, the game wouldn’t be kicking off at noon ET under that scenario, even with Penn State (6-3, 3-3) barely in the AP’s top 25 and not in the CFP’s.

Even as thing actually do stand, this is a huge game, despite what frustrated fans of both programs might think about their team and the guy leading it. Michigan may be chasing bigger goals, but both teams have plenty left to prove. Oddsmakers apparently aren’t sold on the Wolverines, tabbing the Nittany Lions as slight favorites early this week. The line has swung to Michigan being a 1-point favorite in the matchup of 2 of the best scoring defenses in the country. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index analytics, Michigan has a slightly better chance to prevail (54.4%).

It’s that tight of a matchup, at least on paper.

Michigan’s scoring defense ranks 6th in the nation, allowing 16.0 points per game; Penn State is 10th at 16.7. Both teams are +6 in turnover differential. Michigan produces more yards on offense and allows fewer on defense, but the Lions limit opponents in the red zone better than almost any defense in the land.

So, yeah, a pick-’em contest going down to the wire is one scenario.

But PSU fans shouldn’t be blamed if they’re skeptical after watching their Lions putz around well into the fourth quarter before putting away Maryland last week. Plus, it’s not hard to envision Michigan — now at No. 6 in the latest CFP rankings — simply manhandling Penn State like it did in 2018 (42-7) and 2016 (42-10). Under Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines have hammered PSU in every meeting they’ve entered as the higher-ranked team.

Penn State would certainly prove something with a third straight victory in the series, because Michigan plays a more physical brand of football and has viable berths in the B1G title game and the CFP at stake.

Here’s what the Lions are up against:

  • Michigan boasts the 6th best total defense in the nation, allowing less than 300 yards per game. It is 9th best against the pass, meaning Sean Clifford, Jahan Dotson and PSU’s one-dimensional offense will face their toughest challenge since Week 1 against Wisconsin.
  • UM defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (7 sacks) rates as a possible top-10 pick in the NFL Draft, not good news for Clifford, who has been sacked 11 times over the past 3 games.
  • Linebacker David Ojabo terrorizes QBs too; his 8 sacks put him in the top 10 in the nation in the category.
  • Michigan’s relative weak spot on D, stopping the run, still ranks a solid 30th in the nation. Penn State’s anemic ground game (117th) isn’t likely to find much room.
  • On offense, only 6 teams in the nation run the ball better than Michigan on a per-game basis. Even with Blake Corum questionable with an injury, Hassan Haskins can carry the load by himself, if need be, against PSU’s 49th-ranked rushing defense.

There’s no mystery about what Penn State needs to do to crush Michigan’s championship aspirations.

  • Clifford, coming off outings of more than 360 passing yards against Ohio State and Maryland, will have to produce another such performance — minus the turnovers (2) vs. the Buckeyes and the multiple off-target throws (27-of-47) against the Terrapins.
  • Dotson, coming off a school-record 242-yard receiving game, will have to do something similar against a secondary better and more well-coached than Maryland’s.
  • The defense will have to keep bending but not breaking, hopefully with Jesse Luketa and Jonathan Sutherland returning from injuries.

Beyond all that, there’s the question of motivation.

Michigan seeks to reach its season finale at home against Ohio State as a 1-loss team, so Harbaugh can get another shot at his first victory over the Buckeyes and all the spoils that will go with it — assuming the rival Spartans don’t also run the table.

How much does Penn State care? Are the Lions feeling slighted and disrespected that they’re still not in the CFP’s top 25 even as 4 teams dropped out in Tuesday evening’s reveal? A 10-win season, top-10 ranking and NY6 bowl are all probably still attainable. Those don’t quite match the really big dreams from back when the Lions were riding a 9-game winning streak and had climbed to No. 4 in the AP Poll. The season has become a bit of a slog since Clifford’s injury spurred a 3-game skid. And it doesn’t help that head coach James Franklin’s status hangs in limbo, with major job openings springing up around the country and his name connected to several.

Still, these teams draw more fans to their home games than anyone else in the nation. Another 100,000-plus should be on hand Saturday despite temperatures forecast to top out in the 40s. This game is going to matter to a lot of people, one way or the other. It’s going to say something about these programs, and where they’re heading — certainly in the short-term, but maybe on a grander scale as well.