ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Just five years ago, Michigan State was one of the top football teams in the country and dominated a Michigan program that was in complete turmoil. Since then, it’s incredible how the two sides have traded places.
There are a shocking number of similarities between the 2019 and 2014 editions of this rivalry, but with the roles reversed.
First, take a look at the current state of the Michigan and Michigan State football programs. Michigan is 8-2 and has a chance to win 10 games for the fourth time in five seasons. It’s been to a bowl game every season under Jim Harbaugh and is annually considered a contender in the Big Ten. Michigan State, meanwhile, has had a few down seasons, going just 24-24 since the start of 2016. The Spartans are currently battling to get back to a bowl game this season.
Michigan was the struggling program in 2014, sleepwalking through a seventh year of bad football -- with 2011 being the lone exception. The Wolverines got blown out by every decent team on their schedule and ultimately missed a bowl game because of losses to Maryland and Ohio State at the end of the year.
The Spartans, meanwhile, would finish 2014 with an 11-2 record, winning double-digit games for a fourth time in five years. Sound familiar? Mark Dantonio had MSU in the Big Ten championship conversation year after year.
Michigan State’s 10-win 2017 season is starting to look like Michigan’s 11-win 2011 season. A lot had to go right for both teams to get to double-digit wins in a year surrounded by mediocre seasons.
How about the outlier victories in head-to-head matchups? Michigan beat MSU in 2012, the only time during a six-year stretch that the Spartans failed to win at least 11 games. Likewise, Michigan State upset Michigan in 2017 -- by far the worst year of the Harbaugh era.
The Michigan team that went into Spartan Stadium in 2014 had already lost four games, including a blowout home loss against Minnesota and a loss to lowly Rutgers.
That matchup was predictably lopsided. Michigan State rushed for 219 yards and gained 446 total yards while holding Michigan to just 186 total yards. The 35-11 score looks closer in hindsight than the game ever felt, likely because Michigan only rushed for 2.3 yards per carry and completed less than half its pass attempts.
Dantonio toyed with Michigan for 60 minutes, finally punching in one last touchdown with 28 seconds left.
In 2013 and 2014 combined, MSU outscored Michigan 64-17. The yardage differential was 840-354.
After Saturday’s beat down, Michigan has outscored Michigan State 65-17 the last two seasons. The yardage differential was 862-314.
Harbaugh didn’t hold back when given a chance to blow out his in-state rival at home. Perhaps he remembers that late touchdown in 2014, even though he wasn’t the head coach. With 2:33 left and the game well in hand, Michigan was still slinging the ball all over the field, ultimately scoring one last touchdown on a 39-yard pass to win by 34 points.
Now Michigan State will have to win its last two games to get to a bowl game. Regardless, it’s a third bad season in four years, and the Spartans aren’t currently competitive in the rivalry.
From 2008 to 2014, Michigan lost games to the likes of Illinois, Toledo, Purdue, Northwestern, Minnesota, Rutgers and Maryland. Since 2016, Michigan State has lost to the likes of Indiana, Northwestern, Maryland, Illinois and Arizona State.
When Jeremy Langford plowed into the end zone for the third time in 2014, sending Michigan out of East Lansing as a laughingstock, it was hard to imagine when this rivalry would turn back around. But here we are, just five years later, and Michigan has completely flipped the script.
Michigan resorted to drastic measures to get out of its dark age, firing the athletic director and head coach and doing whatever it took to land Harbaugh. Now it’s reaping the benefits of a stable, healthy football program.
Is Michigan State willing to do the same? If not, the Paul Bunyan Trophy will be spending a lot more time in Schembechler Hall.