College football: Is No. 2 Michigan on upset alert against No. 9 Penn State?

Deep into the college football season, we’ve got some exciting games for Week 11 that could paint a more clear playoff picture. One such game is No. 2 Michigan at No. 9 Penn State. Michigan’s defense has a case as the best in the nation, allowing just one first and goal through nine games. Should we expect the Wolverines' undefeated season to continue?

Michigan’s strength of schedule

The Wolverines are 9-0 with the top-ranked defense in country but ... their strength of schedule is 111th out of 133 teams.

The highest-graded offense Michigan has faced is Rutgers (21), which is also the highest-graded defense (53) it has faced. When you play seven opponents outside the top 75 in offense, it’s easy to see why the Wolverines' defense has been so stout.

Penn State is, of course, a big step up in competition. The 25th-graded offense, led by quarterback Drew Allar, is backed by the seventh-graded defense and a top-five pass rush.

J.J. McCarthy and Michigan’s offensive line

A factor that could come into play for Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy is that he’s been sacked eight times in the last three games. He's pressured 34 times during that span compared to 32 through the first six games. On the surface it may not appear to be a big issue.

However, the best pass rush McCarthy has faced in that three-game stretch is 63rd-graded Purdue. The Nittany Lions have the fourth-best pass rush in the country, generating 42 sacks on 202 pressures. For comparison, Purdue has 24 sacks on 172 pressures.

Why this could matter: McCarthy hasn’t faced an elite defense. He has three interceptions and five turnover-worthy plays this season under pressure. Penn State has the 10th-graded rushing defense, according to PFF, but is the top-rated defense in rushing yards allowed, holding opponents to an average of 60 yards per game and allowing just six rushing scores all season.

Penn State needs to eliminate the run game and force McCarthy to win through the air. If it can force McCarthy into havoc situations, turnovers and short field positions are possible. The question is: Can Penn State limit the run game? Yes.

What happened to Michigan’s run game?

The Wolverines' rushing offense, led by senior Blake Corum, is graded 93rd after tying for first last year. Corum, who had season-ending knee surgery in 2022, is far below his production in both yardage and yards per carry from last season. The fact that Michigan’s offense is now more balanced with McCarthy could also be a contributing factor to that. Still, Corum is less efficient this season, ranking 64th in yards after contact and 74th in explosive runs. He has only seven designed runs of 15-plus yards this season compared to 22 last year, which was the most in college football.

Now an inefficient Corum has to face an elite rushing defense. Yes, the run game can be stopped. Yes, McCarthy will need to get the passing game going. It's all very concerning.

The difference between Michigan and Ohio State is the Wolverines don’t have a weapon to bail out the offense like Buckeyes receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., who had 162 receiving yards and a score in an eight-point win over the Nittany Lions.

Respect to Michigan for beating up on bad teams. Are Wolverines the real deal? With a regressed run game, a quarterback that hasn’t been tested and an easy strength of schedule, we’re about to find out. The only option: Penn State +5 and +170 to win outright. Let the Week 11 chaos begin.