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Why Michigan isn’t underestimating Michigan State

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Playing for the ‘state championship’ is always a big deal.

The Michigan Wolverines played very well in Week 1, the Michigan State Spartans did not.

Michigan beat Minnesota 49-24.

Michigan State lost to Rutgers 38-27.

One program has a head coach entering his sixth season on the job, the other has a first year head coach who was hired in February during a pandemic-laden year. Reading analytics and looking at the rosters of both teams, there’s a clear favorite heading into their rivalry game, but that doesn’t mean Michigan’s underestimating what the Spartans can accomplish.

“We can’t underestimate them,” Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said. “At the end of the day, it is a rivalry game. It doesn’t matter who they lost to or who we beat. At the end of the day, it’s who shows up on Saturday.”

With such a strange lead up to the season, we’ve seen major upsets transpire in the four Power Five conferences that have played games, upsets are an even more common occurrence week-to-week than we’ve seen in a long while. Teams have had quick turnarounds in performance this season, and that’s a fact not lost on Michigan. “In a season like this, every single game matters,” fullback Ben Mason said. “It’s so important that every week we put out the best product on the field that we can. And that’s really what we’re harping to the team right now. What we did last week, doesn’t matter at all, has no impact on what’s going to happen this week. And we need to practice this week and practice real hard because that’s gonna have an effect on how we’re doing the game this week.”

The Spartans had 7 turnovers, which did them in, a number that isn’t likely to occur again versus Michigan. “Wouldn’t expect there be that many turnovers the next time they play,” head coach Jim Harbaugh said on Monday. “That obviously hurt them very badly in this past game.”

The Michigan-Michigan State rivalry has been a bitter one in recent history, a game that both teams take seriously, and new MSU head coach Mel Tucker is driving that point home with his players. “We’re doing things in-house to emphasize what this game means in terms of educating our players or reminding our players what’s at stake,” Tucker said. “We have some coaches on our staff that have played in this game and just talking about the history of the game. We’ve shown guys videos just framing it up for them to put in perspective of not only what this game means now, but what it has always meant for us here at Michigan State.”

Michigan State and Michigan are on different trajectories right now. Michigan looks on the up and up, Michigan State looks like a rebuild. Conventional wisdom would say that means Michigan will win handily, but delving into the psychological aspect of football, the counter would be this is Michigan State’s Super Bowl. This game is what they look forward to most. This is their biggest game on the schedule. Even if MSU isn’t the more talented team, Michigan must treat them like a threat so they don’t get hit with a right hook.

“The red blood is pumping and it’ll be really pumping for both sides in this game. No question about that,” Harbaugh said about what the atmosphere will be like on Saturday. “It’s for the state championship, it’s what we call it. The chance to win the state championship, I think a lot of players can relate to that who might have been playing for a state championship when they were in high school. It’s a really big deal.”

It’s easy for any team to kick their feet up a bit when they have a good game and see their next opponent just got embarrassed, but it doesn’t sound like that’ll be the case for the Wolverines. Aidan Hutchinson said this week that the team has made it a point of emphasis to be self-led and not always rely on coaches to create locker room unity and focus. While Michigan’s coaches help create a positive environment, it’s always important that the players want to be leaders on their own volition.

The key to dominating Michigan State is to not underestimate them. Exploit every weakness, and be prepared to stop their greatest strengths. Michigan is favored by over 25 points for a reason, but they can’t take their foot off the gas. If Michigan does go out there and put together a cohesive effort in all phases, wins handily, and improves on their mistakes from Week 1, it’ll show that the mental makeup of this team is high caliber. We’ll find that out when Michigan takes on Sparty at 12 ET this Saturday on Fox.