Last season, Michigan and Michigan State were both 7-0 when they met in East Lansing. They were coming off disastrous COVID-shortened seasons, so 2021 felt like a successful reset for both programs.
In terms of the College Football Playoff race, Saturday won’t have the same glamour. But just because the stakes are different doesn’t necessarily mean they’re diminished.
Obviously, the same motivation that always applies to a Michigan-Michigan State game is in play. The Paul Bunyan Trophy and a year of bragging rights are up for grabs, and that alone should bring out the best in both teams.
The Wolverines, in particular, are hungry for revenge after last season’s 16-point collapse in East Lansing. It was their only loss en route to a Big Ten championship, but players have admitted it left an awful taste in their mouths.
Jim Harbaugh also has to be tired of hearing about his winless record against Mel Tucker. This week, he outright admitted how much he wants to win this game. I can’t ever remember him doing something like that before.
Harbaugh smashed so many narratives last season when he beat Ohio State, won the conference, and brought Michigan to the College Football Playoff. But one of the blemishes on his current resume is a 3-4 record against Michigan State and an 0-2 record against Tucker.
Saturday is a chance to get even in one and start the clock on the other.
For the Spartans, nothing would be sweeter than going into Ann Arbor and shocking the world as a three-touchdown underdog -- just like they did in 2020.
Everybody is counting Michigan State out, and that’s the situation in which this program always thrives. The disbelief and heartbreak an upset would cause -- not to mention the ripples sent throughout college football -- would completely change the narrative of this difficult season.
What it means for Michigan
If you take out all the rivalry elements and just look at this game in terms of Michigan’s resume, the stakes could not be higher.
The year’s first College Football Playoff rankings will be revealed next week, and an undefeated Michigan would almost certainly be in the top five. As much as committee members like to pretend the CFP poll is a clean slate every week, that first ranking always acts as a gauge for how each outcome is viewed through November.
Unlike the AP and Coaches polls, which don’t have a whole lot of meaning, what happens on Tuesday night matters. And the game against Michigan State is Michigan’s last chance to make a statement after sitting at home last week.
Fair or unfair, the conversation surrounding the Wolverines for the first month of the season centered largely around their strength of schedule. Everyone wanted to talk about how easy Michigan’s non-conference games were, and the consequences of that perception will linger if it comes to choosing between playoff contenders.
I don’t think there’s any way the Big Ten gets two teams in the College Football Playoff this year because the champions from all five power conferences will likely have fewer than two losses. The SEC’s playoff contender pool grew from two to three when Tennessee took down Alabama, so it’s much more likely that a second SEC team would qualify over a second Big Ten team.
Long story short: Michigan can’t lose to a 3-4 team, whether it’s a rivalry or not. If the Wolverines keep winning, The Game in Columbus will ultimately send one team to the playoff and the other to the Rose Bowl -- that’s exactly where Michigan wants to be.
A loss in any of the four games between now and then would muddy the waters.
What it means for Michigan State
Last week’s overtime win against Wisconsin was enormous for Tucker because it kept a bowl game in play for Michigan State.
After losing four in a row, it looked like the Spartans would miss out on the postseason for the first time since 2016 (not counting the COVID year). But now, assuming they can take care of Rutgers and Indiana at home next month, it’ll only take one upset for Michigan State to get to six wins.
That upset will have to come at Michigan, Illinois, or Penn State -- three road games against undefeated or one-loss teams.
While missing a bowl game isn’t the end of the world (Michigan State bounced back to win 10 games in 2017), it would be a disappointing sequel to an 11-2 season. It would also rob the program of valuable postseason practice reps.
A rivalry win could rejuvenate the Spartans and propel them to a strong November, while a loss could take even more wind out of their sails. Even during their four-game losing streak, the looming opportunity to beat their in-state rival gave them something to work toward. If that’s taken away, the season could really start to come unglued.
Everyone wants to focus on games from the highly ranked team’s point of view, but these opportunities are vital for teams scratching and clawing in the middle of the pack, too.