ANN ARBOR, Mich. – In the eight years since Jim Harbaugh returned to Ann Arbor, the Michigan football team has undergone a complete transformation.
The month before Harbaugh was hired, the Wolverines couldn’t even beat Maryland at home to qualify for a bowl game. Two years later, he brought them inches (or less) away from winning in Columbus and locking up a College Football Playoff appearance.
In six non-COVID seasons under Harbaugh, Michigan has won double digit games four times. It certainly looks like the program is on its way to making it five out of seven.
But through the highs and lows of his tenure, one thing that’s never changed: Michigan State is a thorn in Harbaugh’s side.
Harbaugh’s history vs. Michigan State
Fans should have known in 2015, when one of the flukiest plays in Michigan football history led to a crushing last-second defeat, that no coach was going to come in and turn this rivalry on a dime. That game paved the way for Mark Dantonio’s team to make the playoff -- another reminder of the uphill battle Harbaugh faced when he arrived.
Since then, Michigan has thrived, consistently winning at a high level. Michigan State’s road has been a bit rockier, but still, this in-state rivalry can never be taken for granted.
Look at 2016, when the aforementioned near Big Ten champs needed a returned two-point conversion to beat the eventual 3-9 Spartans by more than a possession. Or 2020, when Michigan State lost to Rutgers in the opener only to waltz into an empty Michigan Stadium the very next week and dominate the No. 13 Wolverines.
Last season was another example. Even though both Michigan and Michigan State were among the best teams in the nation, Harbaugh’s team was better, and that was evidenced when the Wolverines built a commanding 16-point lead.
But Mel Tucker had more heartbreak in store for the Wolverines, storming back to hand them their only loss of the regular season. The following week, the Spartans lost to Purdue, and a couple weeks later, they got steamrolled by the same Ohio State team Michigan would run all over in the season finale.
None of it makes sense, but that’s why everyone loves college football. Anything can happen on any given Saturday, especially in rivalry games.
Especially when it’s Michigan vs. Michigan State.
This year’s matchup
On paper, Saturday’s game should be all Maize and Blue. Michigan is at home, undefeated, and coming off a dominant top-10 win, while Michigan State is trying to claw back to .500.
But if you think that matters, you haven’t been paying attention.
Harbaugh’s 0-2 record against Tucker is too small a sample size to matter, but he definitely doesn’t want to drop a third straight -- particularly not at home, and definitely not when the gap between the teams is so wide.
J.J. McCarthy is also looking for a little redemption in his first start against the Spartans. Last season, a fumbled exchange between he and Blake Corum proved costly, and they aren’t ones to forget.
Michigan State’s secondary remains a weakness, and McCarthy has proved he can win a game with his arm. Look for Michigan to try to exploit that matchup, even though the identity of the offense will always be to run the ball first.
The Spartans are most dangerous at the offensive skill positions. Keon Coleman and Jayden Reed are elite wide receivers who can win jump balls and take over games, even when the defense is in position. That’s exactly what Ricky White did to Michigan in 2020 when Tucker first walked through James Franklin’s favorite tunnel.
If Michigan can take care of the ball and keep the Coleman-Reed duo in check, this game will go as everyone expects. That might sound simple enough, but nothing -- and I mean nothing -- has been simple for the Wolverines in this rivalry.
Throw out the records and the three-touchdown spread. Michigan State will be ready, and if Michigan makes a few mistakes, Halloween could become a nightmare for the third year in a row.