On Monday, amidst a siege of questions about the impending clash between No. 6 Michigan and No. 8 Michigan State, Jim Harbaugh largely resorted to a tried and true cliché.
“Those questions just answer themselves,” the Michigan coach repeatedly opined when pressed about the game’s importance.
Harbaugh, albeit blunt, is correct; the implications of the game do speak for themselves. The winner will not only be rewarded with the upper-hand in a bitter in-state rivalry but will also be solidified as a legitimate College Football Playoff contender. Chances of a Big Ten Championship, too, grow more formidable.
The loser, by contrast, is kicked to the curb, the feel-good mojo from an undefeated start all but dashed.
Harbaugh knows this. And yet, despite his terse answers, he did break character when asked to articulate what a win over the Spartans would mean for the Wolverines’ postseason fate:
“It sure would give it a boost,” Harbaugh said with a chuckle. “You talk about winning the conference, winning the National Championship. It’s an elimination mindset, a playoff mindset at this point. Win this game and it will help your chances.”
The answer speaks volumes about Michigan’s rapid ascension back into college football’s upper echelon. Just ten months ago, the Wolverines were wrapping up a disastrous 2-4 season amidst a COVID-19 outbreak while questions swirled around Harbaugh’s future and the general direction of the program.
And now? Well, things have changed.
“It could really help propel us through the rest of the season,” senior offensive tackle Ryan Hayes said about a potential victory. “We’ve got a few more tough games to prepare for. This could help us with our momentum and confidence for the rest of the season.”
Hayes is among a contingent of Wolverines who are steeped in the culture of the rivalry. A Traverse City, MI, native, he has watched the game and rooted for Michigan since before he can remember. The same can be said for fifth-year linebacker Josh Ross, who hails from Southfield, MI, and watched his older brother, James III, lose to the Spartans three times during his Michigan tenure.
At the same time, as a collective group, the current Wolverines have little rivalry experience. Last season, amidst the backdrop of a pandemic and inside an empty Michigan Stadium, the atmosphere was subdued. Michigan last visited East Lansing in 2018, when Hayes was a freshman who saw no game action and didn’t even make the trip.
Nonetheless, fables and tales — everything from the trademark physicality to the intensity of the hour-plus bus ride to Mike Hart’s infamous “little brother” quip — have made their way around the locker room.
“There’s definitely been some talk about what it means to them,” sophomore running back Blake Corum said. “For the guys that haven’t played the game, the older guys will tell them what it’s like and what it means.
“… But right now, we’re just locking in on film and getting ready.”
All season, the Wolverines have embraced a slogan imparted to them by linebackers coach George Helow: “nameless, faceless opponents.”
Back in September, for instance, sophomore receiver A.J. Henning referred to former teammate Giles Jackson as a “faceless opponent” ahead of the Washington game; while Jackson may be a confidant off the field, on it he is merely the opposition.
Now more than ever, in the most pivotal game of the season, the refrain is applicable. Ross noted that this year’s matchup brings “new blood.”
“It doesn’t matter who you’re going against, you’re just gonna give it your all and do your job and go get it,” he said.
And that’s why, in advance of Michigan State, Michigan is riding the same formula that has buoyed them to a 7-0 start. If they deviate from it? “Lest a team be painfully humbled,” Harbaugh said.
Ross added: “When you change how you prepare during the season, that’s a problem. We’ve been preparing the right way every week. This week, it definitely has higher stakes, but just attack it the same way.”
Ross conducted his press conference with a palpable sense of energy. Harbaugh, too, exuded a certain eagerness; on two separate occasions, he noted his excitement “to get to practice and roll.”
Certainly, the game’s implications play a factor in all of that.
“Everything that we’ve done so far this season, going into Michigan State, beating them in their stadium, I think it would take our season to another level,” Corum said.
As for the alternative?
Well, to borrow Harbaugh’s vernacular, the question answers itself.