With a forecast in the low 50s and scattered showers in the morning, the Wolverines are coming to East Lansing this Saturday — on the eve of Halloween, it’s got all the makings to be the perfect day of good old Midwestern college football.
It’s made more perfect by the fact that both Michigan (No. 6) and Michigan State (No. 8) — in-state rivals who are not always matched in the rankings but who frequently provide CFB fans with thrillers (the 2015 fumbled game-ending punt comes to mind) — are going into this game with everything to lose. Both teams are 7-0 and ranked in the AP Top 10, a matchup that has never occurred. The teams last played each other undefeated in 2010 when they were both 5-0, and last played each other as Top 10 rivals the year that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law. Suffice it to say — it’s a big game.
No surprise, then, that Michigan and MSU students received a jointly signed email from administrators this week asking that they “show sportsmanship and respect for others,” “leave the rivalry on the field,” and “remain committed to representing our universities and our great state with class.” The email further urges:
Be a positive fan. Avoid the use of foul language, obscene gestures, messages, and threats. Don’t bring apparel or signs with profane or abusive language to the game. Cheer for your team, not against the other.
For the Halloweekend in-state rivalry game? Yeah, OK. Moving on.
Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh has made quite the moral comeback after several mediocre years in the Big Ten that were capped off by a 2-4 COVID season whose highlight was a triple overtime victory to none other than the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, who the Wolverines barely scraped by this year as well. But with decisive victories against Wisconsin and Northwestern in the 2021 season, and a win against a Nebraska team that’s far better than their record would suggest, it may finally be the year. To beat Ohio State? Well, we’ll see. It would be remiss to look that far ahead this early. But Harbaugh has the chance to prove himself against an undefeated conference rival this weekend on the road.
Whether the University of Michigan administration believes Harbaugh needs to prove himself was made clear by the four-year extension they gave him following the 2-4 season and six straight seasons of losing to Ohio State and failing to make the Big Ten championship. They like having Harbaugh around, and they like that he generally produces winning records. It’s an improvement from the Brady Hoke era, to be sure, as Harbaugh has produced an overall record of 56-22 and a level playing field against several of Michigan’s local and in-conference rivals, including Notre Dame, Penn State, and Michigan State.
Harbaugh has gone 3-3 against the Spartans and 2-12 against Top 10 teams (both wins at home). What he’s missing is his program-defining moment. And while we all thought that program-defining win had to happen against Ohio State at some point, he’s being presented with the unique opportunity here to have his moment against a team that he’s actually been able to beat before. Will he be able to take it?
Michigan is currently sitting at No. 11 in total defense rankings, according to NCAA statistics, and at No. 5 in rushing offense. They’re averaging about four points more per game than MSU, and the two undefeated teams have faced a fairly even lineup of opponents. The Wolverines are ranked second in the country, behind only top-ranked Georgia, in points allowed per game — but the Spartans are hovering just outside the top 20 in that same metric.
I could keep listing numbers, but that’s not really what this is about. Michigan is favored, but with the troubles that Michigan State has given to Harbaugh’s squads in the past, as well as a home-stadium advantage, this noon game should make for some good old fashioned great football.