I bet that you Spartan fans are licking your chops right now.
It’s not something you have the opportunity to do very often, after all. So I’m sure you’re making the most of it.
Yes, it’s true. The Wolverines are unranked for the first time in seven years. And I realize that Michigan State checks in at No. 11 in the AP poll. Quite a role reversal, I’ll admit.
But you might not want to write this game off as a gimme just yet. Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned in Ann Arbor this year, it’s this: Rankings don’t mean a damn thing. Not in a game like this.
“The game isn’t played on paper,” linebacker David Harris said. “Polls don’t mean anything. You’ve got to play between the lines. – It’s Michigan State, one of our biggest rivals. If you’re not up for this game, you shouldn’t be playing football.”
Sure, we know all about Drew Stanton and the “explosive” Spartan spread offense. We remember how Michigan State bared its teeth, running up the score against college football powerhouses Kent State, Hawaii and Illinois. I’m sorry to break it to you, but impressive, meaningful wins these are not.
No doubt you’ll bring up the road win over Notre Dame while casually forgetting to mention how the Spartans blew a 21-point lead in 15 minutes. A warning sign if I’ve ever seen one. And I seem to remember a 17-point cushion evaporate into the evening air last season. It must have been somewhere around Oct. 30. Correct me if I’m wrong.
But if you stop your “Go Green! Go White!” chants long enough to think rationally – if that’s possible in East Lansing – you might notice a Maize-and-Blue-colored threat to your precious squad’s pristine record.
Traditionally the favorite, now the potential spoiler, Michigan will enter this game well aware of what’s on the line. While your Spartans grow complacent with their newfound national attention, media hype and self-inflated impressions of themselves, the Wolverines grow angry, hungry and ready. Add in the possible return of Mike Hart – you must remember the guy who embarrassed your front seven with 224 rushing yards last year – and there’s plenty for Sparty to worry about.
Make no mistake. Despite all the criticism aimed at Lloyd Carr and his players, the pressure and expectations in this contest rest squarely on the shoulders of John L. Smith and his green-helmeted minions. Here’s part of the reason why:
The Spartans are undefeated. The Wolverines are .500.
Michigan State beat Notre Dame in South Bend. Michigan lost to the Irish in Ann Arbor.
Stanton leads an offense that averages a jaw-dropping 49 points a game. The struggling Chad Henne holds the reins to a team that has topped 20 just twice this season.
As I write this column, the Spartans are listed as 5 1/2-point favorites. Indeed, even many Michigan fans expect State to dominate this game from start to finish. You certainly must feel some kind of satisfaction when considering the possibility of kicking this team while it’s down.
Well, I’ve got news for you: You’re in for a rude awakening. I have a feeling the Wolverines aren’t going to roll over for you. This is more than just a game for Michigan. It’s a chance to humiliate an intrastate rival in a hostile environment while simultaneously turning its season around. And that last bit isn’t exactly a typical tool in the Wolverines’ motivational arsenal.
In fact, I was so curious about how often this situation comes around that I did some research. Can you remember the last time Michigan and Michigan State met when the Spartans were the lone ranked team? Didn’t think so. That’s because it was well before our time, back in 1968. It’s even more interesting because, 37 years ago, Michigan State was No. 12, a ranking eerily similar to its current position. So the result might give us a rough idea of how things will shake out at Spartan Stadium.
What happened, you ask? Michigan won, 28-14.
If you’re still not sold on the idea that Michigan has more to play for on Saturday, if you’re still fixated on the numbers, if you still believe that State will cruise to victory, I’ve got another useful stat for you:
Since I came to Michigan in 2002, the Wolverines are 3-0 against the Spartans.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
– Gabe Edelson can be reached at email@example.com