This is supposed to be Michigan State's dream season. Not Michigan's.
The Spartans -- not the Wolverines -- were ranked No. 5 in the initial AP poll. And deservedly so. Under the direction of Mark Dantonio, few programs have had more success on the gridiron than Michigan State in the past five years. From 2010-14, MSU won 53 games, tallied four 11-plus-win seasons, and brought home two Big Ten titles.
And 2015 is supposed to be a continuation of that. Offensively, the Spartans brought back one of the nation's best quarterbacks in Connor Cook, an All-American left tackle in Jack Conklin, an All-Big Ten-esque center in Jack Allen, and numerous, talented candidates to replace running back Jeremy Langford and wide receiver Tony Lippett. Defensively, most of the starters in the front seven returned, and, given their recent dominance on this side of the ball, the Spartans were given the benefit of the doubt that they would be able to reload in the secondary despite the departures of Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond to the NFL, even with Pat Narduzzi headed to Pitt to begin his head-coaching career. Add in that MSU would host Oregon and would not need to travel to Columbus to face Ohio State until the second-to-last week of the season, and it wasn't difficult to recognize that the table was set for MSU to take the next step as a program.
To become a national champion.
To the southeast of East Lansing stands Ann Arbor, where national-title aspirations were experienced only by the delusional. Yes, the savior of Michigan football, Jim Harbaugh, had returned home, but he wasn't going to convert Michigan into contenders overnight. This was a Michigan football program that went 6-12 in its final 18 games under Brady Hoke and looked quite miserable while doing it. The 2015 season wouldn't be a disaster as the Wolverines returned the components for a strong defense, but offensively? It was going to take time. Michigan had questions at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and offensive line. Harbaugh could not solve all of these problems in just one offseason. He would need no fewer than two or three years to elevate Michigan back to the top.
That's what we told ourselves at least.
But something funny has happened in the last six weeks. We've learned that Harbaugh doesn't care for our timetables. In just six weeks, Harbaugh has thrust Michigan back into the college football conversation. After a season-opening road loss to much-better-than-expected Utah, the Wolverines have pummeled every challenger that they have faced behind a steady offense, the nation's best defense, and improved special teams.
And when I say, "pummeled," I mean it. Michigan has blanked each of its last three opponents -- two of which were ranked at the time -- by a combined score of 97-0. Last time that an FBS team pitched three straight shutouts? 1995. Michigan has outscored its opponents, 160-14, during its five-game win streak. Last time that Michigan owned a plus-146 scoring margin or better over a five-game stretch? 1992. This hasn't been the result of fluky bounces or turnovers either. This has been the result of a defense that has demoralized offenses on a down-by-down basis. Since Utah, only one team has topped 200 yards against U-M. That's UNLV (235), who needed 124 garbage-time yards to do so.
Simply, for the past five weeks, Michigan has played like one of the best teams in the nation. This is why ratings systems like Bill Connelly's S&P+ and Sagarin both rank Michigan at No. 3. And the human polls are catching up, ranking Michigan No. 12 in the AP and No. 14 in the Coaches just three weeks after U-M didn't receive a vote in either.
Back in East Lansing, things haven't gone as expected. Yes, the Spartans own a 6-0 record and still are a top-five or top-10 team depending on the human poll of your choice, but they have not performed like a team worthy of their ranking. Their three-point home win over Oregon has lost its luster as the Ducks' season crumbles apart. They were out-gained by Air Force and Central Michigan the next two weeks. And they followed that up by needing all 60 minutes to dispatch two Big Ten dregs in Purdue and Rutgers. MSU has not looked like a top-10 team all season. In fact, the Spartans haven't even looked like a top-25 team as Sagarin and S&P+ list them at No. 39 and No. 40, respectively. Alarming.
Michigan State fans are quick to point out that injuries have taken their toll. Running backs Madre London and L.J. Scott have been dinged up. Tight end Josiah Price has missed time. There are three offensive linemen in Conklin, Allen, and Kodi Kieler who may not take the field against Michigan. Multiple contributors in the back seven have suffered season-ending injuries (Ed Davis, Vayante Copeland, R.J. Williamson). This is true and may explain a good chunk of Michigan State's regression, though those same fans may not be as inclined to mention the flaws their team had before the injuries hit.
Nonetheless, MSU still is unbeaten and in a position to attain its dream season.
The difference, though, is Michigan can steal that dream season from them on Saturday.
With a win on Saturday, Michigan legitimately would nominate itself as a national-title contender. The Wolverines would be 6-1 (3-0 B1G), launch themselves into the top 10 of the human polls, and be a large favorite in each of their next four games (at Minnesota, Rutgers, at Indiana, at Penn State). In fact, according to Sportsbook, Michigan would be a double-digit favorite in all of them except against the Nittany Lions -- Michigan would be -9.5 in that one. Assuming that they wouldn't blow any of those, the Wolverines would head into their regular-season finale against No. 1 Ohio State with a 10-1 (7-0 B1G) record and, presumably, a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game on the line. And guess what? Because The Game is in Ann Arbor this year, the spread is a near pick 'em at Sportsbook.
You see where I'm going with this?
On the other hand, a loss for the Spartans would spoil their dream season. It'd be their first defeat of 2015, but, because they essentially would trail Michigan by two games in the Big Ten standings, and it's difficult to see how they would make up that ground in five games given Michigan's remaining schedule, their title hopes likely would be kaput.
All at the hands of Michigan.
That would be a dream turning into a nightmare for Dantonio and the Spartans.
As for Michigan? Contending for a national title would no longer be a dream.
It would be reality.