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The Battle for Paul Bunyan

In a rivalry game that’s lacking its usual fanfare, there’s still plenty on the line for Michigan this weekend when the Wolverines visit the upset-minded Spartans.

Michigan State v Michigan

It’s almost hard to believe, but it was just two years ago that Michigan and Michigan State were both top ten teams when they met. ESPN College Gameday was in East Lansing. The build-up for the game was as high as it had been in recent memory. The game itself did not disappoint. A classic that more than lived up to the hype, as Michigan State, behind transcendent running back Kenneth Walker III, came back from a 16-point fourth quarter deficit to hand the Wolverines their first loss of the season.

Michigan bounced back and went on to win the Big Ten – its first conference title in a generation – and advanced to the College Football Playoff. Michigan State lost a pair of conference games over the remainder of the season, but defeated Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl to complete an 11-win season and join Michigan in the top ten in the final rankings. In just his second year in East Lansing, head coach Mel Tucker was the toast of the town.

Since then, things have gone decidedly differently for the two schools.

Michigan repeated its success of 2021 in 2022, capturing the Big Ten and advancing to the College Football Playoff for the second consecutive season. Since losing in East Lansing two years ago, Jim Harbaugh and his Wolverines are 25-2. This season, the undefeated Wolverines hope not to just repeat their success of the past two years, but to exceed it.

For Michigan State, it’s another story all together.

After a disappointing 2022 season in which Michigan State finished 5-7, Tucker said at this year’s Big Ten Media Days that this year’s team was the most talented he’s had at Michigan State. Since making that proclamation, Tucker is no longer around and the Spartans sit at 2-4, coming into Saturday’s game riding a four-game losing streak – and fresh off a game in which they surrendered an 18-point fourth quarter lead to Rutgers.

Suffice it to say, the ESPN College Gameday crew won’t be in town this year.

So what can be expected when the teams meet Saturday night? Michigan comes into the game as a decided favorite (by more than three touchdowns), but is this a rivalry, like so many are described, in which you can throw out the records?

The teams are at such opposite ends of the spectrum this season, that while the Spartan players are saying all the right things (“I believe we’re going to win this football game,” Michigan State’s Dillon Tatum told reporters this week), the Spartan fan base seems to harbor no such illusions. In fact, much of the pregame discussion isn’t about who will win or what the keys to the game will be, but whether Michigan fans will take over Spartan Stadium. Or rather, to what extent they’ll take over.

But that’s not to say that Michigan is looking past its in-state rival or taking anything for granted. To make sure of that, Michigan’s veterans are doing their part to make sure the team is focused – and focused on the right things.

One of those veterans is Blake Corum. Senior linebacker Michael Barrett told reporters that Corum has been very vocal this week, stressing the importance of being ready for the Spartans. Corum’s message hasn’t been lost on his teammates. “We’re going to get their best shot,” senior center Drake Nugent said, “We know that.”

Corum also urged his teammates to not let last year’s post-game antics affect their mindset. Warning his teammates not to play for any sort of revenge factor. “He basically said,” Barrett said of Corum, “Handle your business and keep pushing.”

Which would be wise, because there is plenty at stake for Michigan. Its march toward a third consecutive conference championship and playoff berth would take a serious hit if the Spartans could pull off the upset. Because for the Spartans, motivation won’t be an issue. Beating Michigan – and ruining its season – is about the only thing that could salvage a forgettable season.

Will the Spartans do so? Not likely. But in a game where Michigan State often outperforms expectations, nothing is certain.