It's not easy to explain, but there's something about a football game between Northwestern and Michigan State that just feels right. The Wildcats and Spartans are two Big Ten programs that mirror each other in plenty of ways. Specifically, they've spent most of the last decade punching above their weight class. 

Both programs have made a habit of exceeding expectations. Northwestern surprised everybody by winning the Big Ten West last season and gave Ohio State a scare in the Big Ten Championship Game. Michigan State spent years being a thorn in the side of the Big Ten East despite lower expectations. The Spartans even reached the College Football Playoff in 2015.

Now both teams enter a new season being glanced over by most yet again. Northwestern's win total for the year sits at 6.5, while Michigan State is only at 4.5, according to Caesars Sportsbook. Friday night in Evanston will give both teams yet another chance to prove their doubters wrong.

Northwestern vs. Michigan State: Need to know

Hunter Johnson is Northwestern's QB1: You may remember Johnson as a former five-star recruit who originally committed to Clemson but found himself stuck behind some guy named Trevor Lawrence on the depth chart. Johnson transferred to Northwestern and saw some action in 2019, but he wasn't great. He completed only 46.3% of his passes and had four interceptions to only one touchdown pass. The Wildcats believe he's improved after winning the job over South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski -- a highly-rated four-star QB himself. 

The Wildcats are dealing with injuries: Every team works around injuries, but Northwestern was dealt a couple of significant blows a few weeks ago. The Wildcats lost starting running back Cam Porter (333 yards rushing, five TD in 2020) and offensive lineman Zachary Franks for the season. The Wildcats already had to replace a lot of players on both sides of the ball, so losing the team's top returning rusher an experienced offensive lineman is a big blow.

Mel Tucker finally had an offseason: It's easy to forget the timeline in which Mel Tucker took over Michigan State. Mark Dantonio caught people by surprise when he announced in February 2020 that he was retiring and Tucker was brought to East Lansing a little more than a week later. Tucker, who had just finished his first season at Colorado, was in the process of getting to know his new team when COVID-19 shut down the country. This has been Tucker's first chance to get an actual offseason with this Michigan State team.

Michigan State's starting QB is a mystery: Though Tucker completed his first full offseason, it wasn't enough to determine Michigan State's starting QB -- at least not publicly. Friday night will be our first glimpse into the results of the battle between incumbent Payton Thorne and Temple transfer Anthony Russo. Thorne appeared in four games for the Spartans last season, throwing for 582 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. Russo has much more experience; he appeared in 31 games (26 starts) for the Owls over the last three seasons, throwing for 6,292 yards, 44 touchdowns and 32 interceptions.

How to watch Northwestern vs. Michigan State live

Date: Friday, Sept. 3 | Time: 9 p.m. ET
Location: Ryan Field -- Evanston, Illinois
TV: ESPN | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)

Northwestern vs. Michigan State prediction, picks

If I'm betting anything in this game, the under would be my first choice. I think we'll see a situation in which the defenses are further along than the offenses. When it comes to the spread, this same line of thinking pushes me towards Michigan State. Points will be at a premium in a low-scoring game and that field goal could prove valuable. Plus, Pat Fitzgerald teams always perform better against the spread as an underdog, not as a favorite. Prediction: Michigan State (+3)

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