April 9, 2012

Michigan, MSU football rivalry enters new era

The Michigan-Michigan State rivalry has certainly grown in contempt the past few seasons, and, for the first time in Big Ten history, the 2011 game decided who would play for the conference title. Next year, it will decide who wins the league championship ...

As most Big Ten teams are nearing conclusion of spring ball - Michigan State and Wisconsin wrap up April 28 - it is easier to begin forecasting what to expect from the conference this fall, and in doing so, the gulf between the Legends and Leaders divisions continues to grow.

In the Legends Division, Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska stand at the top and figure to compete for the title-game berth while in the Leaders Division, Wisconsin's chief challenger may be Purdue (it would be Ohio State but OSU is ineligible for the championship).

Like in basketball, the Michigan-Michigan State matchup could usher in an unprecedented era in this rivalry's history, one in which both programs are at the top of their games, and the meeting between them determines the annual representative for the league's title bout.

Though the Spartans faithful is relishing its four-game winning streak over U-M, just as Michigan fans boasted about the Wolverines' preceding six-year streak over the Green and White, it's not as if two heavyweights were doing battle.

During MSU's stretch of success, Michigan was just 26-24 (15-22 prior to 2011), a winning percentage of .520 that falls drastically below its 132-year history of .736. Likewise, during the Maize and Blue's half-decade of triumph, the Spartans went just 33-40 (.452) so it wasn't as if U-M was besting a capable foe.

The last time Michigan and Michigan State won 10 or more games in the same season, prior to 2011, was 1999 when U-M and MSU both went 10-2 following bowl victories. The combatants were both title contenders last fall, in 1999 (they finished second with 6-2 records), in 1990 (finishing as co-champs with identical 6-2 marks), and again in 1989, 1988, 1978 (co-champs), 1977, 1974, 1972, 1956 and in 1955.

In 62 seasons together in the Big Ten - MSU joined the conference in 1950 - the rivals have only both been at the peak of their games at the same time 11 times (once every six seasons). And only three times since 1990.

With Mark Dantonio at the helm in East Lansing, however, building a winning culture that (sorry Michigan fans) isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and with Brady Hoke returning U-M to prominence, the battles between these two heavyweights could be the must-see game for the Legends Division during the next decade.

Nebraska will also be a factor, with Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota taking turns, but Michigan and Michigan State have the best recruiting and the best coaching staffs in the division. And for the next few years, the best players.

This fall, each program will have high expectations. The Spartans return only five offensive players, but are buoyed by the play of quarterback Andrew Maxwell this spring, and believe some combination of junior Bennie Fowler, sophomores John Jakubik, Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery, and redshirt freshmen Andre Sims Jr. and Juwan Caesar (plus the potential impact of four freshmen and transfer DeAnthony Arnett) will adequately replace the departures of wide receivers B.J. Cunningham, KeShawn Martin and Keith Nichol.

But Michigan State is poised for success because it returns eight defensive starters from a unit that was the Big Ten's best (277.43 yards allowed per game). Replacing All-American Jerel Worthy in the middle of the defensive line is a monumental task but none bigger than U-M looking to replace three defensive line starters, and the reports this spring have been positive.

So positive on Michigan's end actually that many are predicting the 2012 front four will, come November, prove more capable than the 2011 edition, which featured Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. If that is indeed the case, the Maize and Blue, which return all seven of their starting linebackers and defensive backs, could move into that upper echelon of defenses within the Big Ten and nationally.

The offense, meanwhile, is clicking this spring and is poised to become even more dangerous next fall with the continued maturity of senior quarterback Denard Robinson and junior tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint.

Both Michigan and Michigan State have difficult conference slates - the Spartans host Ohio State and Nebraska and must travel to Ann Arbor and Madison while U-M plays at Nebraska and Ohio State - and the Cornhuskers will put up a fight also, but it's conceivable that both U-M and MSU will finish 7-1/6-2 and the winner of that game will represent the Legends Division against a Badger team that won't be as strong as it was a year ago.

Michigan and Michigan have rarely been equals on the gridiron. They weren't from 2002-07 when the Wolverines dispatched of the Spartans six times in a row and they weren't from 2008-11 when MSU flipped the rivalry. But in 2012, they will be the Big Ten's two best teams and will decide the ultimate champion. And in 2013, and in 2014, they have the potential to continue representing the Legends Division (against a formidable Ohio State foe).

The Michigan and Ohio State game may always mean more nationally, and should very well decide the conference crown plenty in the next decade, but in the new Big Ten, the Michigan and Michigan State rivalry will define the Legends Division and significantly impact the end result in the years to come.

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