The Michigan Wolverines have a pair of notable rivalries heading in opposite directions on the football field in the series they play against the Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan State Spartans. U-M finds itself seeing the “gap” between them and the Buckeyes expanding, as the program appears to be showing no signs of slowing down as a national power with Ryan Day at the helm. On the other hand, Michigan is taking a stranglehold on the state with the Spartans’ glory years under Mark Dantonio in the rearview mirror as they head into a rebuild with Mel Tucker.
We’ve decided to take a look at both rivalries, as well as what they are saying in their respective markets about the teams. Michigan is also “rivals” with Notre Dame and Minnesota, but seeing as they infrequently play each other, we will keep the focus in the Big Ten East for now.
Ohio State Buckeyes
There is no way to sugarcoat this one. Ohio State owns Michigan right now and is not only a superpower in the Big Ten, but they also appear to be taking the shape of a national title contender every bit as lethal and stacked as the Alabama and the Clemson-type programs in the country. Jim Harbaugh was brought in to narrow the gap and return the rivalry to the days of Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler with Urban Meyer standing on the other sideline. However, the closest they have come to that is the controversial fourth-down spot in overtime in 2016’s edition of “The Game.” Right now, that is looking more and more like the event that shapes the next ten years between these two schools.
In an alternate timeline, Michigan makes that stop in overtime and walk out of Columbus with a victory and trip to Indianapolis the next week with a Big Ten title on the line. They probably win it and head to the College Football Playoff. As a result of that, perhaps there’s more star power on the recruiting trail. Michigan’s next chance at a win in Columbus that could lead to a Big Ten title berth came in 2018 where they never even really got off the bus and were blown out by a score of 62-39.
It is not as simple as reversing a controversial call, as there have been plenty of moments where Michigan got in their way and made things harder on themselves. But if Harbaugh put the Big Ten on notice in his first season plus the first eleven games of 2016, that year’s contest reaffirmed Ohio State as the team to beat. Their recruiting and quarterback play has only gotten better since then and now they find themselves on the precipice of being a perennial title contender. That stings a lot given how finite the margin of error was on that last Saturday in November in 2016.
The question on everyone’s mind revolves around how the heck the Wolverines can turn the tide back in their direction. The truth here is that they simply have to find a way to get it done. Giving up 50-plus points, turning over the football, and getting anything less than great quarterback play certainly is not the recipe to get it done. The good news for them is that those are things that they can control and that there must be an emphasis on improving. The offensive changes that Michigan has made under Josh Gattis are also a big positive for them, as they showed that they could go toe-to-toe with the Buckeyes in the first half of last season’s game before the shotgun blasts to the foot started to kick in. To compete against the elites in college football today, you have to be able to move the football and score and it looks like things are moving in the right direction after what felt like 20 years of refusing to adapt (or ineffectively/inconsistently doing so).
Given that there is a natural talent gap (if you are a believer in recruiting rankings, this is not all that debatable), they have done a fairly decent job of hanging with the Buckeyes in these recent games, but they are not good enough to make self-inflicted errors. It would be amazing to see what Michigan could do if it stayed out of its way, but we have not seen enough of that over the last number of years. Ohio State is a well-oiled machine. Michigan has not been. That’s kind of where things are at right now.
What they’re saying: Gene Ross, Land-Grant Holy Land
In terms of this year’s outlook, Ohio State seems to be built to make another run at a national title. Justin Fields is a top-two QB in the country, the offensive line and wide receiver room are stacked, and the defense has enough returning talent — highlighted by Shaun Wade, Baron Browning, and Zach Harrison — to put together another solid season. Fields is a legit Heisman contender and Kerry Coombs’ return to Columbus should fire up a young and hungry defensive secondary. While the defense will likely take a small step back without Chase Young and Jeff Okudah, the offense should be just as explosive even without J.K. Dobbins in the backfield.
Looking ahead, Ryan Day has not lost a single step filling in the enormous shoes left behind by Urban Meyer, and the now second-year head coach has his program firing on all cylinders. He has transformed the Ohio State offense from the traditional ground-and-pound Big Ten style to a more balanced approach with a lethal pass attack, and as a result, the team has been able to bring in several top quarterback and wide receiver recruits. Speaking of recruiting, the Buckeyes currently have the No. 1 class in 2021 by a rather wide margin. Day has done just about everything you could ask of a brand new head coach at a storied program like Ohio State (including beating the team’s biggest rival - wink), and I would be shocked if he doesn’t bring a National Championship to Columbus in the next three-five years.
Michigan State Spartans
This one is a little easier to write about given that things are going much better for Michigan here. There was a moment in time not all that long ago where Wolverine fans were dealing with the double nightmare of being on the wrong side of both of their major rivalries while the Buckeyes and Spartans duked it out for Big Ten supremacy. When Harbaugh was hired, many of us said that they had to get things taken care of at home before they could worry about the team south of the state line. And truth be told, things started a little bit rough in that regard.
Mark Dantonio’s team came into the Big House in 2015 and walked out with one of the most shocking wins and endings to a game in the history of college football on a botched punt that would have sealed the game for Michigan. They would go on to win the conference and make the College Football Playoff that year. MSU’s 2016 3-9 team gave Michigan a fight in a 32-23 loss. The following season, the Spartans beat Michigan in a monsoon in Ann Arbor, which saw Dantonio improve his record against Harbaugh to 2-1 through the first three meetings.
However, the tide has turned big-time in the last few years. Michigan went into East Lansing and grabbed a 21-7 win in 2018 and blew out the Spartans 44-10 in Ann Arbor last season. MSU finished with a 7-6 record each of the last two years and not only lost a ton of talent this offseason, but also the best coach in program history to retirement on the eve of this past National Signing Day.
After a coaching search that seemed to revolve around Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell before he bowed out, MSU was able to hire Mel Tucker away from Colorado to run the program. By all accounts, Tucker is a skilled recruiter and has put together a solid staff around him, so there’s quite a bit of optimism up the road (more on that soon) compared to the end of last season. Dantonio had run his course in East Lansing and it was time for a change. However, the timing of his decision hurt MSU’s ability to get a leg up on the 2020 recruiting class, which is one of the more talented crops of prospects the state of Michigan has had in some time. That was already a challenge and then the pandemic hit, which hampered Tucker’s ability to bring prospects to campus and make an in-person impression.
On the flip side, Michigan has added several of the state’s top prospects and their recruiting is improving. Anything can happen in a rivalry game, but given the projected gap in talent over the next few seasons, it truly is hard to see MSU being competitive in this rivalry for at least the next two years. It will depend on the talent Tucker can bring in and how well the staff develops what they have, but things look much different here than they did a few seasons ago.
What they’re saying: Ryan O’Bleness, The Only Colors
Michigan State is currently in a vulnerable position. Mark Dantonio retired one day before National Signing Day, and Mel Tucker was hired about a week later. Tucker then used the next couple of weeks to put together a staff. This already put Tucker behind in terms of preparation and recruiting, and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which shut down spring ball and on-campus recruiting. The new coaching staff hasn’t been able to implement its new offense or defense on the field yet, or evaluate talent. It wasn’t until this week where MSU has been able to do full-team, hands-on workouts for about 20 total hours over the next two weeks: eight hours of weight training and conditioning, six hours of walk-throughs (with a football), six hours of film review and/or meetings. Coming off consecutive 7-6 seasons, and losing several starters from 2019 (including eight on defense), Michigan State has many question marks, but also plenty of potential. The pandemic has further complicated the team’s development and chemistry. Before the Big Ten moving to a conference-only schedule, I figured MSU could muster six wins (with a ceiling of seven) and earn a spot in some kind of December bowl game. Now with the conference-only schedule, I think the Spartans could struggle to get to four wins in 2020 (assuming we play a season at all). Quite frankly, there is a lot of mystery to this team right now because we haven’t been able to see the new schemes, personnel packages, or play-calling yet. Quarterback is probably the biggest question mark on the team.
Tucker is highly-touted as an excellent recruiter. We haven’t seen that yet with the 2021 class (still time to turn that around), but again, the chips were stacked against him this cycle. I expect him to start making an impact with the 2022 cycle and brining more top-tier athletes to East Lansing. The coaching staff Tucker put together is extremely promising, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Offensively is what is most intriguing for Spartans fans, though, after witnessing poor play-calling and execution, and an inability to put up a lot of points in each of the past two seasons. We forever love Dantonio for what he built and accomplished at Michigan State, but things were trending downward at the end of his tenure. I think there is a lot of optimism that Tucker can lead MSU back to being a top-tier Big Ten team and compete for division titles and conference championships. This is going to take a couple of seasons, as MSU has a relatively young roster and (as mentioned) needs to pick up the recruiting, however, Spartans fans seem to be trusting the process. Time will tell.