MSU’s stakes higher with U-M better than expected

SPARTANS: Michigan State’s football team marches onto the field prior to a 2015 game. (Detroit Free Press photo)

SPARTANS: Michigan State’s football team marches onto the field prior to a 2015 game. (Detroit Free Press photo)

EAST LANSING – Imagine in 1978, after Michigan State beat Michigan, if someone said Bo Schembechler’s first nine seasons had been nice and all, but the Spartans were ending the Wolverines’ little party and reclaiming the throne they’d held for decades.

That’s an imperfect analogy, of course. But the point is that it was obvious Schembechler had built something that would last by then.

If Michigan were to win Saturday, MSU coach Mark Dantonio would lose for only the fourth time in 36 games and only the third time in nine games against the Wolverines. The perception of a crucial moment at hand for MSU seems to have more to do with the new guy coaching the Wolverines than anything else.

It’s clear the No. 12 Wolverines (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten) are on the rise under Jim Harbaugh after seven mostly forgettable seasons under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. The No. 7 Spartans (6-0, 2-0) have been on top, in the state and beyond. So the question is being asked again: Can MSU and U-M enjoy sustained football excellence at the same time?

The next few years should deliver an answer, because conditions can’t be much more prime than this. For now, outside expectations vary.

USA TODAY’s Dan Wolken wrote this week of Saturday’s stakes: “This is the year Michigan State had to make good on being the big dog in the state before Jim Harbaugh’s influence started to tip the balance in recruiting and on the field. Hardly anyone expected that Michigan might be the better team this year. But that’s a very possible scenario now. … If Michigan wins this game, effectively ending the Spartans’ hopes of making the College Football Playoff, it may be years before Michigan State fans recover from the gut-punch.”

That’s a grim forecast for an MSU program that has been recruiting at a higher level, in expanding areas, since finishing the 2013 season 13-1 with a Big Ten championship game victory over Ohio State and a Rose Bowl win over Stanford. Most of the 32 wins in the past 35 games can be credited to players from less-heralded classes.

Saturday’s stakes are different for the teams, though, based on preseason expectations. This was to be a national-title contender in East Lansing and a first step in the Harbaugh rebuild in Ann Arbor.

Michigan has looked like the better team and is a significant favorite. That easily can lead to the question: What’s going to happen when Harbaugh really gets it going?

“One loss wouldn’t crumble what Mark Dantonio’s built in East Lansing — which he’s done while Michigan generated more headlines through three coaching changes after Lloyd Carr retired,” said Bill Bender of the Sporting News. “It’s nothing new. The Spartans continue to recruit well and develop NFL-ready talent. But the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been for the Spartans now. They have to slow down Jim Harbaugh’s momentum.”

An MSU loss could “return the outside perception back to what it once was, that Michigan State always plays second fiddle to Michigan,” said USA TODAY’s Nicole Auerbach, who wrote a story this week about the “seesaw effect” history of these programs.

To quickly review, U-M is the older university and football program, with the most wins in the sport’s history and a decided advantage in the first half of the 20th Century. Michigan State was a pest then, not a rival — with six wins and five home games in the first 42 meetings.

Biggie Munn turned MSU into the better program in the 1950s, which saw MSU join the Big Ten despite well-documented opposition from U-M, and the Spartans kept winning big under Duffy Daugherty through the mid-1960s. The Spartans were 14-4-2 against the Wolverines in those two decades with claims to six national titles.

Schembechler took over in 1969. Daugherty retired in 1972. Schembechler and his coaching family — former assistants Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr followed him — went 30-9 against the Spartans. Almost four decades of stability on one side and frequent changing with occasional surges on the other built the massive perception wall Dantonio encountered when he took the MSU job.

And it’s not just perception. Michigan has a significant edge in resources and fans. But Dantonio has two Big Ten titles, two straight top-five finishes, four straight bowl wins and a 6-1 record in his past seven games against the Wolverines.

“Mark Dantonio and (Kansas State’s) Bill Snyder are the top-two program-builders in the country,” Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com said. “Michigan State will endure. Michigan State won’t slip up, not as long as Mark Dantonio is there.”

Like Harbaugh, Dantonio won’t be relying largely on in-state players to sustain his roster. That’s one big argument in favor of these programs perhaps having bigger games than Saturday’s ahead.

“I don’t see any reason both can’t be good,” Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated said. “Alabama and Auburn are in the same state and both manage to be good, this season notwithstanding. Michigan State is starting to attract more guys that are being pursued by a lot of other programs. I don’t think this can go back to how it was while Mark Dantonio is at Michigan State.”

And if Harbaugh is staying long-term at Michigan — unlike, say, MSU’s Darryl Rogers, the man who beat U-M and won the Big Ten in 1978, then bolted in 1979 — then “there’s no reason they both can’t recruit at a high level, develop talent at a high level and compete against each other as highly ranked teams year in and year out,” Auerbach said.

Said Bender: “The next five years could be the best this rivalry has ever had to offer — even better than the last five years on the basketball court.”

For the record, Dantonio concurs. He was asked this week about both programs flourishing at the same time and said: “Yeah, it can happen. We can coexist.”

Or to quote Dantonio after his first taste of the rivalry as head coach, a 28-24 Wolverines comeback victory in 2007 accompanied by much nastiness: It’s just starting.

avatar

Posted by Tribune News Services

Leave a Reply