Well, it is finally upon us. The Mother of all Michigan-Michigan State games.
And it’s about time.
This rivalry has too often been dismissed as a regional affair, not a national showpiece. That’s partly because the two teams are almost never ranked at the same time.
When one is up, the other’s done.
Lately, it’s been all Michigan State. The Spartans have beaten Michigan six of the last seven, often embarrassing the Wolverines in the process.
The Spartans spanked Michigan so badly the past two years, whenever I said, “Good game” to a State fan, they’d complain that, sure, they won, but you know, they just didn’t play that well. You got the feeling they were getting a little bored with the whole thing.
The credit goes to Spartan’s head coach Mark Dantonio, who’s done more with less than just about any coach in the country. He’s been beating up the Wolverines with a lot of players Michigan didn’t want. Halfway through the current season, the Spartans are undefeated, and ranked seventh.
So what’s Dantonio’s reward? The entire offseason, he got to listen to the media go on and on about Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh – before Harbaugh had even coached a game.
Michigan had been getting worse every year. Since Harbaugh had inherited the same players, not much was expected this year. But after Michigan lost the opener to a very good Utah team, the Wolverines won the next five games – including three straight shut-outs.
That’s right: Michigan has not allowed a point in three games. The last time that happened it was 1980 and Jim Harbaugh was in high school. He is no longer in high school.
Harbaugh’s squad got there step by step, first by playing tough, then smart, then confident – so confident, in their last game against Northwestern, the Wolverines looked like they couldn’t wait for the next play, to show off what they’ve learned. They didn’t come to Ann Arbor to play on a losing team.
I can’t recall any Michigan-Michigan State game that seemed to mean so much to both sides. The Spartans want to make sure this decade of domination doesn’t stop. Dantonio wants to prove his success wasn’t just a matter of thumping the overmatched Brady Hoke, but that he can take on a big time coach like Jim Harbaugh. Of course, Michigan wants to prove they’ve really returned – long before anyone thought they would.
Who’s going to win? It’s harder to predict than usual, because I don’t think Michigan State’s played its best football yet, while Michigan keeps exceeding expectations every weekend. Will the Spartans wake up and play to their potential? Will the Wolverines wake up from a dream season, and fall back to earth – or are the Wolverines really a national contender? We’ll find out tomorrow.
But a few things are certain: whoever wins will be in the top ten next week, and have a great shot at the four-team national playoff. We also know the fans of the winning team will be insufferable for a year -- almost as bad as the fans of the losing team.
And that’s what a real rivalry looks like.