Michigan, Michigan State have rarely played with this much on the line
Michigan and Michigan State have played 107 times on the football field, but matchups such as the one that is shaping up for Saturday are relatively rare.
With the Spartans ranked No. 7 and the Wolverines 12th in the Associated Press poll, this will be the 17th time they meet as ranked foes.
Only time will tell if this becomes a habit.
For all the success Mark Dantonio has enjoyed since taking over as head coach of the Spartans in 2007, there is still not much comparison between the two programs historically.
Michigan claims nearly twice as many national championships (11 to six), and the Wolverines’ 42 Big Ten championships dwarf Michigan State’s eight.
Even if only counting from 1953, the first year Michigan State was a football-playing member of the Big Ten, Michigan still has nearly triple the conference titles (22).
Michigan leads the all-time series 68-34-5, but Michigan State has plenty to be proud of in its own right, especially lately.
Going back to that national championship discussion, the Spartans claim more titles (six) than the Wolverines (three) since the first AP poll in 1936 ushered in the poll era (both have two titles from the AP or the coaches, and both schools claim titles from various other outlets).
And more recently, Michigan State has dominated the series. Dantonio is 6-2 against the Wolverines, including blowout wins the past two years. He lost his first meeting 28-24 in 2007, a game still famous for Mike Hart’s "Little brother" comments in the aftermath.
Dantonio was unamused, declaring, "Pride goes before the fall," when asked about how Michigan’s players had reacted to their win, and since then the coach has usually had the last laugh as his team has walked off with the Paul Bunyan Trophy following six of the last seven games.
But much has changed since the last meeting, a 35-11 Michigan State win in East Lansing.
Michigan has a new coach, favorite son Jim Harbaugh, whose Wolverines have not only won five games in a row but posted three consecutive shutouts, including two over ranked opponents.
Meanwhile, Michigan State rose to No. 2 in the polls last month, but the Spartans have sunk to seventh after a slew of injuries and a handful of lackluster performances following a tight home win over an Oregon team that was ranked in the top 10 but has since fallen apart.
Oddsmakers have installed the Wolverines as favorites, but are things really swinging back in Big Blue’s favor so quickly?
For all the hype surrounding Harbaugh since he took over last December, Dantonio has hardly taken a backseat. The Spartans’ coach racked up four-star recruits all summer, and Scout.com ranks his current class No. 5 nationally, four spots ahead of Michigan, which has historically recruited at a higher level even if wins have not always reflected that.
"It’s a very meaningful game, but you still have to win your other football games to be successful."
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio
And there is the fact that entering Saturday’s matchup, Dantonio’s team is still the one that is undefeated and the one that can lay claim to the most recent Big Ten championship and major bowl victory.
But can the teams ever stand on equal ground for an extended period of time? Historically they have not — though both have enjoyed multiple periods of success, those periods have rarely coincided.
Only 10 times have both the Spartans and Wolverines finished the year ranked in the AP top 25, and three of those instances were in the 1950s. The rest have been fairly spread out, with two in the ’70s, two in the ’80s and two in the ’90s. The last time was 2011, when Michigan State was No. 11 and Michigan was No. 12.
Though Harbaugh seemed reluctant to talk about the past or put much focus on the rivalry itself this week, the question posed to Dantonio was probably inevitable: Can these two programs coexist as not only Big Ten but national powerhouses simultaneously?
"All I can tell you is this is one game of the week, one game of the year," he told reporters in East Lansing on Monday. "It’s a very meaningful game, but you still have to win your other football games to be successful. So I think both teams can have good football teams, if that’s what you’re asking. It’s been done before, and both teams have gone to, you know, big bowls in the past, at the same time, and things of that nature so, yeah, it can happen. We can co-exist."
Dantonio is a smart guy who knows the rivalry inside and out, having grown up in Ohio and coached at Ohio State before taking over at Michigan State (where he was an assistant in the 1990s), but most would probably agree college football is anything but predictable.
Is "little brother" all grown up, or is the empire ready to strike back?
Depending on which colors you wear, the 108th edition of Michigan-Michigan State could continue a decade of dominance or just be a return to normalcy. It’s all a matter of perspective. But it could also signal the start of something big.