From the outside, this game may seem innocuous.
Michigan, the No. 4 team in the nation and a program with national title aspirations, will host a 3-4 Michigan State team that is as inconsistent as it is flawed. A three-touchdown spread in favor of the Wolverines and the Spartans’ lack of success this season would tell you that you might not even need to watch the second half.
But look at this game — at this rivalry — up close, and you’ll see much more.
Michigan State coach Mel Tucker is keenly aware of that fact.
“When it’s in-state, it’s different,” Tucker told reporters Monday. “You’re fighting over the same recruits. … It’s bragging rights, it’s something you talk about every single day. There’s not a day that has gone by since I’ve been here that it hasn’t come up. When you’re in close proximity like that, I think it just adds to the intensity of it.”
Tucker has flourished so far in regard to this rivalry. In his first two years as Michigan State’s coach, he has faced Michigan twice as an underdog, and twice his team has emerged victorious.
Back in February 2020, it seemed improbable for that to be the case.
The program that Tucker inherited was in disarray. The Spartans hadn’t touched the top 30 in recruiting rankings since 2016, they were coming off of a 6-6 season, had lost two straight to their rival and were embarrassed the year prior in Ann Arbor, 44-10.
But unwavering, Tucker saw something others didn’t.
“This is the right time for me to be here,” Tucker said back on Feb. 12, 2020. “That’s really what it comes down to. The commitment is here, the resources are here, the want-to, the leadership is here. Everything is here. Everything we need is here right now to get done what we need to get done.”
Now, just two years after that, and even in spite of a down year for Michigan State, glimpses of what he saw are visible.
Tucker’s rebranding of the Spartans came at the perfect time. Keep choppin’, Tuck comin’, the Woodshed — they’re all sayings adding to the common identity shared amongst the Green and White faithful.
After taking over for former coach Mark Dantonio, Tucker has already instilled a culture at Michigan State that embodies the program that Dantonio built in East Lansing. And if you want to see results, again, just look at the rivalry’s recent results.
Less than a year into Tucker’s tenure, he brought a heavy underdog Spartan squad into a cavernous Big House during the COVID-19 season and emerged with Paul Bunyan in tow.
He has yet to relinquish the trophy.
While Michigan and Michigan State appear — at least on paper — to be heading in completely opposite directions this year, when they take the field on Saturday night, that’s not quite the full picture.
This game — this rivalry — has so many more moving parts than what’s visible to the outside eye. As Tucker mentioned, there are tremendous recruiting implications for the game. These two schools, just 60 or so miles apart, vye for many of the same recruits. As Tucker tries to hoist his program into the upper echelon of college football and as Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh tries to retain his program’s momentum, its clear how their two goals are conflicting:
They both need the best recruits in the state of Michigan.
“Everyone wants to see the rivalry games, right?” Michigan wide receivers coach Ron Bellamy said. “You want to see what you’re doing, who has bragging rights in the state. And for us — this particular week — they want to see how you respond to this.
“Kids are definitely tuned in and I know we have some big-time kids coming to town for this matchup all over the country. So it definitely shows the importance of this rivalry, something that we take very seriously.”
The Wolverines have so much on the line. With a win, they impress the recruits that are visiting — including coveted five-star quarterback Jadyn Davis. With a loss, though, under these circumstances, the repercussions are severe.
For Michigan, at least. But for Tucker, an upset win at that? Trust could be restored in his plan.
That’s what’s on the line in this game. It won’t just define the two team’s seasons, it will impact the rivalry for years to come.
Even though Michigan State hasn’t impressed this season, Tucker has earned his money — a lot of it, at that — through excelling in this rivalry. Regardless of this year’s record, he can salvage his team’s season with another win in the Big House on Saturday.
Tucker is trying to put his program into ascension mode, and the way to kickstart that is with an upset win this weekend. On the other side, Harbaugh is trying to build upon his team’s momentum and prove that he can win in the rivalry.
One has to give, right?