ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It’s happening again.
The Michigan football team is heading into a high-profile rivalry game with in-state, conference and national stakes on the line. And the general consensus seems to be that the Wolverines have a good chance win.
It feels a bit like watching your favorite movie for the hundredth time. You might not remember every intricate detail, but you go in with a pretty good idea of how it ends.
Michigan is desperately hoping that’s not the case this weekend.
Confident fans of the Maize and Blue will say years past have no bearing on Saturday’s game between No. 6 Michigan and No. 8 Michigan State -- and that’s technically true. But Jim Harbaugh still has to prove that he can win this caliber of game, because, well, we’ve seen plenty of refuting evidence.
Michigan State has thrown Michigan into some of the darkest cellars of the Harbaugh era. From the 2015 “trouble with the snap” game to losses in 2017 and 2020 when the Wolverines were heavily favored, it always seems like the Spartans bring their best when they see the Block M.
They might not want to admit it, but there’s a significant segment of the Michigan fan base waiting for the other shoe to drop on this magical 2021 season. The Wolverines have won each of their first seven games in a year when some weren’t sure whether they’d win seven games at all.
But because of the past, skepticism is natural. The Wolverines have built a reputation for starting strong and crumbling when the schedule gets tough:
- 2016: Michigan started 9-0 and lost three of its last four games.
- 2017: Michigan started 4-0, lost to Michigan State and finished the season 4-5 in its last nine games.
- 2018: Michigan started 10-1 before dropping its final two games by a combined score of 103-54.
- 2019: Michigan started 9-2 before dropping its final two games by a combined score of 91-43.
Look, there’s a chance this is the Michigan team that bucks that trend. It’s going to happen eventually (right?). But there’s no denying this is about the time of year when the fan base is used to having its heart broken.
It was almost exactly one year ago, the afternoon of Halloween, when Michigan State haunted the Wolverines again, winning as a three-touchdown underdog in the Big House. Going into that game, I had never felt so certain about the outcome of a Michigan-Michigan State game.
Mel Tucker kicked off his tenure by losing to Rutgers, while Michigan ran all over a Minnesota team that was expected to compete for a Big Ten West title. Those outcomes supported preseason predictions that Michigan would be solid and Michigan State would have a down year.
The 60 minutes that ensued couldn’t have been more shocking. Somehow, Michigan State was the far superior team, bullying Michigan from start to finish. I vowed to never underestimate the Spartans in this matchup again.
This year, Tucker has built a Michigan State team that feels a lot like the prime-era Mark Dantonio squads. They’re not flashy, and people are always picking against them, but the Spartans just find ways to win.
My guess: Tucker loves that Michigan is favored this weekend, especially at Spartan Stadium.
Michigan State is at its best when the players have a quiet confidence about them. They play mean and -- yes, it’s cliche, but -- with a chip on their shoulders. Sometimes the games are ugly, but there’s a sense that Michigan State will find a way to pull through, just like in its most recent game against Indiana.
We’ve all heard this before, but Michigan just needs to win one game like this. One. A single win to prove it can be done and turn around the negative big-game momentum.
Fans can talk about how Washington was supposed to be a big game. Or Wisconsin. Or even Nebraska. Well those aren’t big wins anymore because those teams stink. Michigan State qualifies as a worthy opponent, without debate.
Forget about what a win would do for Michigan nationally or in the conference -- though it would be substantial in both aspects -- fans just need to walk away from a game of this caliber feeling something other than dread.
Dread over listening to rival fans for a year. Dread over what’s going to be said about the program nationally. Dread over the collapse that often follows the first loss.
There’s a reason every high-profile Michigan game comes with a debate about whether or not the Wolverines can ever live up to the hype. It’s because when they have a chance to prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that they’re worthy, they haven’t come through.
Saturday is the latest opportunity to flip that script.