One of the interesting aspects of the 2012 schedule is how divided people are when it comes to the importance of the Michigan State and Ohio State games. Dave Ryan and I decided to have a little email discussion about it to try and get more in depth. As long as this doesn't turn out too Skip Bayless-y, you could see this feature again in the future. As always, comments are encouraged.
Zach - Now it feels a little wrong saying this, because I have been programmed my entire life to believe the opposite, but this year Michigan State is the most important game on the schedule, hands down. The same reason that the Ohio State win last year had so much added significance exists now in terms of MSU. The Streak. It burns us. It has to end, and until it does, the MSU game is the most important game on the schedule.
Dave - I may be delusional, but I'm not sold on how this Dantonio-fueled resurgence automatically vaults the Spartans into the biggest game on Michigan's schedule. Last year's win over a mortally-wounded Ohio State program absolutely forced the Buckeyes' hand on the coaching carousel, and now the biggest and baddest rivalry in college football just got dialed up another notch with arguably the most arrogant man in the sport. Seasons will come and seasons will go, but nothing matters more than the Ohio State game, and that's all there is to it.
Zach - I wouldn't say that last year's win forced Ohio State's hand in hiring the most obvious coaching candidate in the history of college football coaching searches, but it did get a giant monkey off Michigan's back. That means that it is now Michigan State that haunts us. I don't know about you, but I have a lot of friends that went to Michigan State and I hear about this streak constantly. It is infuriating. The Spartans under Mark Dantonio have built themselves into an impressive team that looks to be able to compete for Big Ten championships for quite some time. The MSU defense is one of the best units in the country. Michigan has reestablished its momentum in recruiting and in national perception. Now it is time to do it on the field.
Dave - Streaks are streaks. I'm not sure being haunted by the Spartans in the short-term is enough to supplant everything that goes along with The Game and what it means for both teams. Oregon State haunts the hell out of USC. Navy and all other service academies haunt Notre Dame. Dantonio deserves all the credit in the world for what he's done in East Lansing, and he might just have the best overall team out of the three (love that defense). But with Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes on the schedule, THAT'S the game Brady Hoke has to win. Meyer is every bit an evil genius, and he's going to try and pound the Wolverines into the turf at every opportunity. We can't have that - not here. The Spartans will fall to Hoke's sword eventually, believe it or not, but Meyer is absolutely not a guy any Michigan fan wants to put on a winning streak.
Zach - Even if we want to go ahead and discount the Michigan State streak as just a bump in the road until Hoke rights the ship, we can't overlook the fact that if the ultimate goal this season is a Big Ten championship, there is no bigger opponent on the schedule than Michigan State. Ohio State is in the other division, and isn't even eligible for the conference title this year. Meanwhile, Michigan State is arguably the best team in Michigan's division and the only one of Michigan's three toughest Big Ten games that will be played at home. If MIchigan can't beat Michigan State then the odds of a Rose Bowl birth are slim to none.
Dave - The Buckeyes may be out of the Big Ten title picture, but they still have the power to hand the Wolverines a gut-wrenching conference loss just like any other Big Ten team. The Michigan State game is smack in the middle of the season on October 20, whereas Michigan travels to Columbus on November 24 for final weekend of the year. No matter what the Wolverines want to achieve this season when the third weekend of November rolls around, whether it be to keep an undefeated season going, gain a Big Ten championship game berth or try to boost their bowl standing, it all goes through Ohio State. You lose to the Buckeyes and you never even sniff the Big Ten Championship and those beautiful Rose Bowl dreams fade away. You lose to Dantonio's kids right before Halloween and who the hell knows what can go down to close out the year? Maybe that not-so-important win over OSU actually vaults you back into the picture (whoa, mind-blown) as the Spartans fall to an improved MarQueis Gray and the Gophers in Minnesota on the same day? When you lose to Ohio State in 2012, you know what you're getting, and it's an Insight.com bid . When you lose to the Spartans, wild, crazy, wonderful stuff could still go down after you finally stop spitting up all that blood.
Zach - That's a really wonderful scenario you've cooked up, what with Michigan pulling off the win against Ohio State while Michigan State loses to MarQueis Gray in a heartbreaker, but outside of supposing that Minnesota is capable of that kind of incredible upset, you overlook the fact that it is just one of a few outcomes that has Michigan playing for the Big Ten title after losing to Michigan State. It sounds great, but in that scenario Michigan doesn't control its own destiny. If Michigan wants to up its odds of going to the Big Ten title game, it absolutely has to take care of business in the Legends division, because if it comes down to a tie-breaker between one loss teams, I would rather have Michigan sitting there with wins over Michigan State and Nebraska and a loss to Ohio State than I would a loss to Michigan State and a ticket to the couch for the Big Ten title game. The most important thing is controlling your own destiny. Beating Michigan State allows Michigan to do that.
Dave - I won't lie - Losing to Michigan State solely on a tiebreaker in the Legends division would be brutal. And yes, it would technically give the Spartans a leg up if the two teams finished tied with the same conference record (likely). Buuuut just because we think MSU is going to stay atop the cool half conference in 2012, why does this mean it automatically will? One glance at the schedule shows a dangerous stretch of games that could all go either way for Dantonio's team. Win or lose at The Big House on October 20, the Spartans will still enter that week immediately after playing a dangerous Iowa team the week before. And with a trip to Camp Randall scheduled seven days later and Nebraska looming large after that, I fail to see how anything at all will come easy to the Spartans this year. You mention Michigan having the ability to control its destiny as being of the utmost importance, but nothing else the team did earlier on the schedule will matter one bit if it can't get past Ohio State. Like it or not, a shred of hope still exists when you lose on October 20th in the college football world. On November 24th? Not so much.
Zach - Like it or not, going into 2012 Michigan State is the class of the Big Ten -- and this is exactly why we must crush them.
I love The Game, and beating Ohio State last year was probably one of the three best things that happened to me during the entire calendar year (and we are talking about watching a football game, 800 miles away, played by a bunch of kids that weren't even on campus when I graduated), but if Michigan really wants to go back to being Michigan, it is going to have to take care of business in its own back yard. The sum of arguments for why Ohio State is the most important game is simply because it is Ohio State. The arguments for Michigan State being the most important game? A four year losing streak, a "green" state of Michigan, and a better chance at getting a shot at the Big Ten title game. The Ohio State game will always be huge, but this year Michigan has unfinished business against that team from East Lansing, and most likely it'll be for who goes to Indy in December. To be the best you've got to beat the best; that more than anything was why the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry developed into what it is. This year, Michigan State is the best team in the conference. That's why the Michigan State game is the most important game on the schedule.
Dave - This isn't Purdue, or Iowa, or Indiana, or Illinois. This is the University of Michigan, a program where only one marquee game on the schedule each season can define what the team is actually made out of. The Spartans might have laid claim to the mitten state on the gridiron temporarily, but it's impossible to ignore how swiftly Meyer and Hoke have both danced circles around Dantonio on the recruiting scene. And honestly, imagine going down to Columbus and smacking around Meyer's Buckeyes in his first year on the job? How ridiculously gratifying would that be? And you want to pass that up?
It's easy to get caught up in the losing streak and view the Spartans as the most vital game on the docket this year. But to anyone who has ever sulked out of The Big House while hordes of Ohio State fans were still there waving you goodbye after a loss, the biggest rivalry in college football is simply far too significant to be placed on the back burner. Regardless of whether it is the year 2012 or 2038, the hatred between these two programs isn't going to dissipate. That's why I'm fully confident that Ohio State is the single most important game on the schedule in 2012.