If you're not originally from Michigan, the Michigan Michigan State rivalry is a difficult one to get excited about. As a person who lived his life just about everywhere on earth other than Michigan prior to enrollment at the University of Michigan, I knew next to nothing about the rivalry when I first arrived. Honestly, over ten years post graduation, I'm still light on any relevant history or anything spectacular Michigan State's done in this rivalry against or to Michigan. You could argue that State's most relevant contribution to football in the last twenty years was to hire Nick Saban and then allow him to leave.
While the games can be competitive, there's generally not a lot of back and forth in the outcome of this game. Michigan holds a commanding 67-28-5 record against Michigan State. That's a 69.5% winning percentage for you math geeks. Since 1995, Michigan State is on its fifth coach. Michigan is just breaking in its third fourth coach... in nearly 40 years (stupid Gary Moeller). Where perhaps Perles and Bo had a little bit of history together, the lack of continuity at Michigan State has stymied the growth of would should be a tremendous game. As a result, Michigan State is 2-8 against Michigan in the last ten games and despite some close games, the rivalry has taken a national back seat to whatever marque or not-so-marque game is on ABC.
If all this is true, then why is it important? Why should a Texas, USC, Florida, or Rutgers fan give two craps what the outcome is? Because, goddammit, these games are fun to watch and they are as nasty as any game you'll ever see in College football.
For those of you not from Michigan it's hard to describe the animosity between the schools and student bodies of Michigan and Michigan State. The best examples I can give are imagine if it was just Texas and A&M in the State of Texas [no Tech, no Baylor], or just Florida and Florida State in Florida [no Miami, no USF] and no one else. Hell, if it was just UCLA and USC in California. Just those two schools as football powers for an entire state, in the same conference, same division. Now imagine that those two schools are competing for the entire talent base of a talent rich state, competing for the same out of state recruits, and now imagine that all of the smartest (and dumbest) kids in that state are split between the two schools. Can you feel the hate brewing?
Michigan is a public Ivy. Michigan State is on a short list of schools that should be, and is also an elite research institution. State and National funds are split down the middle. Donor bases are comparable. The schools draw from similar academic bases on students and faculty. They are the marque public schools for an entire region. Everyone in Michigan wants to go to one school or the other. Families grow up hating or preferring one school over the other. People align themselves with one school or the other, even if they didn't go to college there, or anywhere for that matter. It's the snobs versus the common man. The nerds v. jocks. Smart Kids v. 'Tards. The Have's v. Have Nots. Those Assholes v. Those Assholes. Burger King v. Morton's. Hard Work v. Entitlement. etc...
Everyone picks their school. They apply and they get in. Everyone says where they're going to school was their first choice.
But let's face it, given the choice, just about everyone'd rather go to Michigan. At least that's my outside opinion. When I visited both Michigan and Michigan State as an out of state high school senior, I came back and talked with my Texas classmates. I told them I'd gone to Michigan and everyone asked me questions about it or mentioned something about the football team beating Notre Dame. I then mentioned I'd gone to check out Michigan State and got a simple response, "Why?" This isn't that uncommon, State fans.
That in a nutshell sums up why this game is so important to Michigan State. Respect. Having someone ask "Do you mean 'State' or 'University of'" when you tell someone you went to school at Michigan, rather than tell you how cool the winged helmets are. They want people outside Michigan to be impressed when they say they went to State, and go "Wow, good school" rather than say "Oh... Great party school, eh?" They want to prove they were smart enough, fast enough, good enough, etc... to go to Michigan and succeed. In fact, some of State's programs exceed Michigan's and provide better resources for students and graduates. Look at the success of the basketball and hockey teams. Dammit, Michigan isn't as good as they think they are and we'll prove it. They're tired of living in the shadow when they've done enough good to be recognized in their own right.
That's what makes this game so interesting. It's a constant battle for respect by one side and a constant face of feigned indifference on the other.
Don't let anyone tell you differently, Michigan fans love to beat Michigan State. They love to remind them that even with easier admissions requirements they still can't field a competitive football team. Michigan fans love to remind State fans that they haven't been to the Rose Bowl since 1988 and have a better chance of seeing Jesus in a jar of peanut butter than a BCS bowl game. Michigan fans love to tell State fans that they would've gone to Michigan if they could've, but they didn't get in. They love to thumb their noses and fart in the general direction of a school they consider inferior, even if in reality, it's not. It's nasty.
I've always looked at the Michigan Michigan State game as the collison of two high school factions that really didn't like one another. The smart normal kids at Michigan versus the high school cool crowd at State. These two groups coexisted in high school, but didn't really like one another and weren't forced to interact. Now they are. And they're both on equal footing. There's resentment, jealousy, anger. The cool kids want to be seen as smart and the smart kids want to be seen as cool. And neither side is going to give an inch or admit a thing.
And as Michigan has racked up victory after victory, the arrogance, anger and anomosity have grown. It comes down to a respect game. Not just on the football field, but in the classrooms, conversations, and rankings. It's a never ending battle for recognition that Michigan will never give, no matter the outcome of the game. And that inflexibility, and elitism riles the blood of State fans even more.
As a result there's an impasse. If no quarter will ever be given by either side, the only thing to do is fight it out on the football field. So when you, dear outsider, look at this game, it's not just two teams from the same State duking it out for instate bragging rights.
It's two teams fighting a never ending battle for respect that one side feels it is owed and one side feels will never be deserved.