First let’s clarify: this isn’t just about the big game tomorrow. Sure, that has a lot to do with it, but it is about much more than that. It’s been a wild ride, and we expect it will only get wilder.
Let’s recap where we were last October. It was a dark Saturday evening. Over 100,000 Michigan fans stood anxiously awaiting their team’s first major victory of the season, and a signature win for their new superstar football coach. They are 10 seconds away. They can taste it. And then disaster struck. Or, divine intervention—if your team wears green and white.
The week leading into the Michigan-MSU game last season was interesting. Both teams were ranked in the Top 15 of the national polls. Each team had a chip on its shoulder—Michigan saying “we’re back,” while MSU was saying “we deserve respect.” The fan bases chirped the typical rivalry game trash talk. And then the game was underway, and for the most part it was all Maize and Blue. Until the end, that is. Michigan almost won. But as we all know in the world of sports, almost doesn’t count. The MSU faithful were quiet for most of that game, awaiting the agony of defeat, and then—what just happened? Looks like it’s another year of bragging rights! Spartans came crawling out from every crevice after that play. Demoralized Michigan fans were left thinking, “Where did you all come from?” That final play will live forever, for better or worse. It inspired a Lego re-creation, countless memes, a classless rant, and, yes, even yielded death threats. To put it plainly, it wasn’t pretty.
The Spartans went on to win all but one of their regular season games in 2015, including taking a trip to Columbus to knock off the Buckeyes. It earned them a showdown in Indianapolis with the Iowa Hawkeyes, who they overcame in the final minute to claim the Big Ten championship. And then it was on to the College Football Playoff, and that’s where things took a turn for the worst. The eventual champion, Alabama, pounded the Spartans, 38-0.
The Wolverines, on the other hand, after dominating defensively over the first half of the season, would go on to struggle down the stretch. While they only lost to Ohio State—though by an embarrassing margin—they struggled against teams they had no business struggling against, namely Indiana and Minnesota. And then it was on to their bowl game in Florida. This time, it was like a different team showed up. Harbaugh’s Wolverines stepped onto the field and routed the Gators, 41-7.
In hindsight, it seems these two teams have ridden those performances into their 2016 campaigns. The Spartans, after winning their first two contests against struggling opponents, have fallen in five consecutive games. The Wolverines have dominated in virtually every game this season, with three of their seven victories coming against teams that are currently ranked in the AP Top 25.
Now we come to this year’s game. “We’re finally back,” Michigan fans are saying. Skeptical Spartans are saying, “we deserve respect.” (The rest of the Spartans are in hiding or busy lowering expectations while all but conceding the game, praying that lightning can strike twice and they can emerge once more.)
Both teams will get to earn it on the field. Michigan’s top-ranked defense will go into East Lansing looking to prey on MSU’s freshman quarterback, Brian Lewerke, the likely starter. Their surging offense will go against a depleted MSU squad that has been shuffling freshmen in and out since the first week of the season.
All signs point to a blowout. The Maize and Blue are favored by more than 24 points. So why shouldn’t Michigan route the green and white?
There are two keys to this game. The first is coaching. Jim Harbaugh has done an outstanding job in his year and a half at Michigan. We all know that. Each week he has his squad ready to play. Michigan is the second-ranked team in the nation, for crying out loud. But there’s also a force in the MSU locker room. In the past eight games against Michigan, Mark Dantonio’s Spartans have never failed to cover the spread. So for eight consecutive years, the “experts” in Vegas have underestimated the old green and white. Will Michigan do the same this year? Don’t count on it.
The second key, the most fundamental aspect of any championship-caliber team, is defense. This is where the teams are night and day. Michigan will make it a long afternoon for the MSU offense. It’s that simple. You have to score to win, and Michigan State will have a very difficult time doing that.
On the year, Michigan is pounding its opponents by an average score of 49-10. They absolutely dominate in the first half, and they don’t let up. MSU has held its own in the first two quarters this season, but can’t sustain it. In the fourth quarter alone, the Spartans are being outscored by 87 points. If the Wolverines jump out to an early lead, we’ll be talking after the game about whether or not it was sportsmanlike for Michigan to run up the score on their in-state rivals.
However, if MSU can force and capitalize on some key turnovers, or if God smites the entire Michigan team for worshiping a false idol, the Spartans—technically—have a chance.
That’s why you play the game.
(Take the over.)