In 2008, just as the Big Ten was beginning its sharp de-evolution into a wasteland of plodding football, the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry took a sharp turn: A year after Michigan running back Mike Hart issued a diss heard ’round the state-that’s-shaped-like-your-hand-we-get-it-already, the Spartans defeated the Wolverines for the first time in seven years, and they’ve won five of the last six meetings since then.
The problem with the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry was representative of the malaise that plagued the Big Ten as a whole. It became decayed and disinteresting and lopsided. One team was good, and one team was not good at all; the games themselves were slow and largely one-sided. As Michigan State steadily improved, Michigan kept getting worse, first under a spread-offensive coach named Rich Rodriguez who wasn’t the right fit in Ann Arbor, and then under a former Wolverines assistant named Brady Hoke.
And without a healthy Michigan, as we’ve now learned, the entire Big Ten tends to collapse under its own weight; without a healthy Michigan, an essential catalyst is missing. Without a healthy Michigan, arguably the two best rivalries in the Big Ten became toothless. Sure, Ohio State won a national championship, but the case could be made that Ohio State qualified for the College Football Playoff last season – and was afforded the leeway to overcome its injury issues at quarterback – in large part because the Big Ten (with the exception of Michigan State) just wasn’t very good.
But now there are potentially three elite Big Ten teams. In his first season at Michigan, Jim Harbaugh has inspired such a striking revival that the Wolverines haven’t allowed a single point to an opponent in their past three games; the Wolverines look so sharp at the moment that it’s not difficult to imagine that Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State are now engaged in a round-robin to determine which Big Ten team will land a spot in the College Football Playoff. And it begins this Saturday, when the seventh-ranked Spartans travel to Ann Arbor to face a 12th-ranked Wolverines team that suddenly seems capable of virtually anything.
There is an obvious truth inherent to most great college football rivalries, which is that the teams in question share more similarities than differences. On the surface, Michigan would prefer to distance itself from Michigan State in the same way it has long attempted to set itself apart from Ohio State, by dint of academic snobbery and superior location. But the beauty of Michigan-Michigan State heading into this year’s game is that both teams are now essentially grasping for the same territory: The Spartans have made their reputation under coach Mark Dantonio by playing fierce defense and running the ball and relying on largely mistake-free quarterback play; and the blueprint for the Wolverines so far this season under Harbaugh has been nearly identical.
“We know we’re not the biggest guy on the block – Michigan State’s the biggest guy,” Harbaugh said at a Detroit coaching clinic this summer. “Rightfully so…they have done a tremendous job. We respect the job they’ve done, but we want to be that.”
And here is where it could get good, because we all know that Harbaugh is capable of colorful outbursts and possesses a pathologically competitive streak; and Dantonio, who hasn’t smiled voluntarily since high school, is capable of the same fierceness. Already this week, some (presumed) Michigan supporters spray-painted a (very strange-looking) statue of Magic Johnson on the MSU campus. It pissed off Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo to the point that he threatened to have his team sleep next to the statue in order to keep it safe. It would be great, then, if something happens in this game that re-catalyzes a rivalry – and a conference – that’s been in need of an infusion of top-to-bottom energy for close to a decade now. If Michigan-Michigan State is truly back, then maybe its safe to say that the Big Ten as a whole is back.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb