Michigan May Finally Be Acknowledging Importance Of MSU Rivalry
Death, taxes, and Michigan minimizing its rivalry with Michigan State — these are the only certainties in life.
But perhaps not anymore, at least for the latter.
For decades, Wolverine players and their fans have been ambivalent, at best, and apathetic, at worst, about the importance of their rivalry with the Spartans. Michigan fans have been eager to remind their counterparts in green that Michigan State is nowhere near the top of Michigan's hate list. Some players have taken it even further: Desmond Howard and Denard Robinson, for example, have both ranked MSU as a distant third rival for Michigan, behind Ohio State and Notre Dame.
The point Michigan players and fans have been making with those statements over all those different years and decades is crystal clear: No matter what Michigan State does or accomplishes, Michigan will never acknowledge MSU as an equal like it does with Ohio State.
That may be changing, according to the words of their coach and at least one player.
Harbaugh Can't Go 0-3 Against Tucker
At Big Ten Media Days on Tuesday, Jim Harbaugh laid out Michigan football's explicit ambitions for the 2022 season.
"Our goals would be to beat Ohio State and Michigan State in the same year, win the Big Ten championship, and win the national championship,” Harbaugh said.
And there it was. The man — the Michigan Man — at the helm of the Wolverines football program literally putting Michigan State in the same breath as Ohio State. It was a momentous development, as if the president of China were to acknowledge the sovereignty of Taiwan. And it's not difficult to see why Harbaugh did it.
Through seven years as Michigan's head coach, Harbaugh owns a 3-4 record against MSU. Two of his three wins in the rivalry came against two of Mark Dantonio's worst Spartan teams (32-23 in 2016, when MSU finished 3-9, and 44-10 in 2019, when the Spartans went 7-6).
But most importantly, Harbaugh is 0-2 versus Mel Tucker. He simply cannot afford to fall to 0-3 against his contemporary in East Lansing. To put in more saliently, Harbaugh cannot afford to let Mel Tucker start 3-0 versus him and Michigan.
Many Michigan fans expected the rivalry with State to return to pre-2008 levels once Dantonio retired after the '19 season. Instead, things have gotten worse for them. Tucker redefined the current state of the rivalry with a shocking upset of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 2020, then followed that performance up with a huge win in 2021's instant-classic Top 10 matchup, handing Michigan its lone regular-season blemish.
Dantonio went 8-5 against Michigan, including winning seven of eight from 2008 to 2015. But he didn't start out 2-0 against his arch-rival. He also didn't recruit at a particularly high level. Tucker has done both of those things.
Harbaugh started 0-5 against Ohio State. After finally exorcising that demon, he can't abide by another one developing. Regardless, Tucker and Michigan State are clearly a problem for U-M.
Wolverine Players Have Taken Notice
The players at Michigan have changed the way they approach and talk about Michigan State, too. Senior tight end Erick All said as much at Big Ten Media Days.
"We gotta beat [Michigan State]. I feel like we gotta get after them this year," All said. "I feel like us focusing more on Ohio State kinda... I just don't want us to be more worried about Ohio State than we are about Michigan State because we haven't beat them guys in two years.
"We need to get dialed in with them too. We will. We'll have a Michigan State drill soon too, I'm pretty sure."
It's interesting that All suggested Michigan places too much attention on Ohio State at the expense of their focus on MSU. We'll get to that in a little bit. But it's even more interesting that he thinks U-M will implement a specific practice drill for Michigan State.
Dating back to the days of legendary Ohio State and Michigan coaches Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, both teams have implemented drills into their regular practice regimen that are explicitly designed in preparation for the regular season-ending matchup between the Buckeyes and Wolverines. It's a defining characteristic of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry.
By creating such a drill about MSU, Michigan would be further recognizing MSU's stature.
What Does It Mean For Michigan State?
For years, MSU fans have bristled and seethed with every passing utterance of the term "Little Brother." Even as the Spartans have owned the rivalry with Michigan recently — MSU has won 10 of the last 14 — State fans still are clearly bothered by U-M's flippant attitude toward them.
This has always fascinated me. It's clear that the defining difference in this rivalry over the last decade and a half has been the importance placed on it, and it's something MSU has had an absolute monopoly over. Michigan State's greatest strength is Michigan's biggest weakness, that this rivalry is part of the MSU program's DNA, but treated casually — and intentionally so — by the Wolverines.
And yet MSU fans complain about that. Why? Every time a Michigan fan or, more so, player invokes the "Little Brother" demonym it's only fanning Michigan State's fire. The chip on the shoulder that Dantonio so often invoked and embraced is very real, and it was put there by Michigan. Why would any Spartan ever want to lose that?
That may be exactly what's happening, though. Harbaugh's and All's comments demonstrate that the Michigan program could be departing from its decades-old position of arrogance and disrespect toward MSU due to recent results on the field.
The Spartan fans who have longed for recognition from their in-state rivals may just get it — at the cost of MSU's inherent upper hand.