My Uber driver last weekend didn’t care about Michigan or Michigan State.
His son goes to Indiana, he explained, so he’s a Hoosiers fan with no real connection to either in-state school. Naturally, though, the conversation still drifted to this game, because that’s what happens in this state.
Instantly, his tone changed: Well, yeah, of course I care about the Michigan State game. He’ll be rooting for Michigan, he explained, without providing a reason.
To me, the uninitiated out-of-state kid, that still seems weird. Because on paper, this game doesn’t really matter.
I know that’s not 100 percent accurate. For the Wolverines, a loss would end any faint hopes at a New Years’ Six Bowl. For Michigan State, it could be the difference between the Quick Lane Bowl and the Pinstripe Bowl — both worthy successors to its prestigious 2018 RedBox Bowl appearance.
But around these parts, none of that is the talking point. Eight Michigan players and three coaches were made available to the media this week. The sole question about the Wolverines’ Big Ten title hopes was instantly struck down.
There’s seemingly universal agreement that Michigan is going to win, but that’s not the talking point either. The Wolverines are favored by 13.5, the type of line more befitting of a game against Purdue or Illinois than one against the Spartans — and more importantly, the type of game Jim Harbaugh has never lost at Michigan.
By pure loss probability, it ranks a distant fifth behind trips to Wisconsin and Penn State and visits from Notre Dame and Iowa. The lead-up to each of those Saturdays brought legitimate suspense, and subsequent dissection of the Wolverines’ strengths and weaknesses.
This week has provided none of that. On paper, it isn’t as important as any of those top-25 bouts. And yet, this ostensibly meaningless game is Michigan’s most important since last November.
Just ask Harbaugh: “Most important game of the season — it’s our next game, and it’s huge, big game. I think everybody would share those feelings.”
Or Ambry Thomas: “You come to Michigan to play in this game right here and that team down there in Ohio. You come to Michigan to play in these two games.”
Or even Aidan Hutchinson: “Obviously, Michigan State (is) our biggest rival — or, maybe our biggest rival.”
You get the point.
It’s a point that was instantly hammered home Monday afternoon, the second I walked into Schembechler Hall, even before Harbaugh took to the podium. Where there are usually six or seven cameras lined behind the media seats, this week required two rows. As players later spoke in scrums, reporters lined up three or four deep.
None of this, on the surface, should have come as a surprise. This isn’t my first rivalry week and I remember the similarly-sized swarms that preceded last year’s rivalry games.
It shouldn’t have caught me off guard when Thomas said, “It’s about who’s the big brother and who’s the little sister in this state” given the similar hysteria surrounding last year’s game.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise when I was sitting in the Starbucks on State Street and overheard a kid telling someone on the phone that he couldn’t come home this weekend “because it’s Michigan State.” After all, it was just two years ago that I was offered $200 for my ticket to see John O’Korn take on the Spartans in the driving rain.
But all of it still seems just a little bit strange.
Each of the past two matchups carried the tangible notion of championship hopes for Michigan, against a Spartans team with a pulse. For an out-of-stater like myself, I suppose there was some ingrained assumption that the hype was correlated with how much the actual game mattered.
But then again, I’m from the part of the country where the notion that this game matters as much as the Ohio State game would seem absurd. The part of the country known as, ‘Not Michigan.’
This week, that’s the lesson I’m learning.
All it took to cement it was a conversation with my girlfriend, who’s lived in Michigan her whole life. Every year during this game, she’ll get a text from her dad with a picture of him decked out in maize and blue. Her sister — a Michigan State grad — gets a picture from him, too, but hers is green and white.
So this week, I had her ask her family group chat who’s rooting for who. Her mom’s response was swift: Michigan. Her dad, as of this writing, is still evading the question. Inside, she knows it’s Michigan State. Just another person to trash talk if Michigan wins and hide from if they lose.
It’s a small snapshot of why this game matters so much, an explanation for the hysteria surrounding a matchup with a 4-5 opponent.
It’s also what makes this rivalry so great.
Mackie can be reached via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @theo_mackie.