Well, it is finally upon us. The Mother of all Michigan-Michigan State games.
And it's about time. This rivalry has too often been dismissed as a regional affair, not a national showpiece. That's partly because the two teams are almost never ranked at the same time. When one is up, the other's down.
The Spartans dominated the fifties and sixties, winning six national titles during those two decades. The Wolverines, led by Bo Schembechler, ruled the state for the next two decades. In the nineties, Michigan State won four times, but always as the underdog, upsetting a top ten Michigan team each time.
Lately, it's been all Michigan State. Last year, the Spartans smoked the Wolverines, 35–11. They kept the Wolverines to zero yards rushing in the first half, and by the end of the game had outgained their foes, 446–186. For the Wolverines, incredibly, the effort represented a nominal improvement over their 2013 game, when they finished with minus-48 yards rushing.
The Spartans kept the Paul Bunyan trophy for the sixth time in seven years, establishing unquestioned dominance over the state for the first time since LBJ ruled the White House. The Spartans' run also altered the dialogue between the two schools. After all, calling your little brother "Little Brother" gets a bit awkward when he keeps kicking your butt.
The Spartans spanked Michigan so badly the past two years, whenever I said, "Good game" to a State fan, they'd complain that, sure, they won, but you know, they just didn't play that well. Style points suddenly mattered. You got the feeling they were getting a little bored with the whole thing.
The credit goes to Spartan's head coach Mark Dantonio, who's done more with less than just about any coach in the country. He's been beating up the Wolverines with a lot of players Michigan didn't even want. The only team in the nation to finish in the top five the past two seasons is not Alabama or Florida State or Oregon or Ohio State, but Michigan State. You could win bar bets with that one.
Dantonio has simply done one of the best coaching jobs I've ever seen. Halfway through this season, the Spartans are undefeated, and ranked seventh.
So what's Dantonio's reward? This entire offseason, he had to listen to the media go on and on about Michigan's new head coach, Jim Harbaugh -- before Harbaugh had even coached a game.
Before Harbaugh showed up, Michigan had been getting worse every year. Since Harbaugh had inherited the same players that finished 5-7 last year, the most optimistic Michigan fans were hoping for an 8-4 season. But after Michigan lost the opener to a very good Utah team, the Wolverines have won the next five games -- including three straight shutouts.
That's right: Michigan has not allowed a point in its last three games. The last time that happened it was 1980, when Jim Harbaugh was in high school. Jim Harbaugh is no longer in high school.
Harbaugh's squad got there step by step, first by playing tough, then smart, then confident -- so confident, in their last game against undefeated, 13th-ranked Northwestern, the Wolverines looked like they couldn't wait for the next play, to show off what they've learned, en route to a 38-0 whitewashing. After all, they didn't come to Ann Arbor to go 5-7.
And now, finally, both teams are ranked, and the nation's watching. Both teams were ranked this highly only once before, back in 1999 -- when Nick Saban coached Michigan State, and Tom Brady quarterbacked the Wolverines.
I can't recall any Michigan-Michigan State game that seemed to mean so much to both sides. The Spartans want to make sure this decade of domination doesn't stop. Dantonio wants to prove his success wasn't just a matter of thumping the overmatched Brady Hoke, but that he can take on a big name coach like Jim Harbaugh. Of course, Michigan wants to prove it has really returned -- long before anyone thought it would.
Who's going to win? This one is unusually hard to predict, because I don't think Michigan State's played its best football yet this year, while Michigan keeps exceeding expectations every weekend. Will the Spartans wake up and play to their potential? Will the Wolverines wake up from a dream season, and fall back to earth -- or are the Wolverines really a national contender? We'll find out Saturday.
But a few things are certain: Whoever wins this game will be in the top ten next week, and have a great shot at the four-team national playoff. We also know the fans of the winning team will be insufferable for a year -- almost as bad as the fans of the losing team.
And that's what a real rivalry looks like.
-- John U. Bacon is the author of four New York Times bestsellers. His latest book, Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football was published in September. He gives weekly commentary on Michigan Radio, teaches at the University of Michigan and Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, and speaks nationwide on leadership and diversity. Learn more at JohnUBacon.com, and follow him on Twitter @johnubacon.