The Michigan-Michigan State game on Saturday is a big deal for the Michigan Football Program. Michigan is 4-0 and has, at times, looked equally dominating and docile depending on the game, quarter and series. There have been so many positive and negative takeaways from Michigan's first four games that there is enough ammunition for both the most ardent supporter and the most hate-fueled detractor to get their points across and not sound like an internet flamer. Michigan leads the Big Ten in scoring and rushing. It has failed to put up fewer than 31 points in its first four games. There is no question that there has been a massive change since last season's carnival freak show. However, Michigan has had the luxury of playing all four games in the confines of Michigan Stadium where the noise level has never been higher. Tate Forcier has been a revelation but he has yet to experience the plague that ravages nearly every rookie signal caller in road game #1. If he's immune, then Michigan should be able to outscore the Spartans despite its Kleenex soft defense. If he's not, though, bad, bad things will happen at Spartan Stadium. Regardless of what happens in the game, Michigan has arrived earlier than anyone expected. Saturday will simply reveal to what extent.
Michigan has little to lose on Saturday. Nobody thinks this team is going undefeated. Nobody thinks this team is going to win the Big Ten. Most neutral observers don't even think Michigan will beat MSU. Vegas has it -2.5 in favor of Sparty. Michigan is young and inexperienced. This season is simply a training ground for a program badly in need of experience. A loss to Sparty would sting in the short-term but it's really irrelevant in the long-term. If Michigan doesn't beat Michigan State at home next season, then we can start thinking about which cliff to jump from.
The team that absolutely needs this game more than perhaps any other team needs any other game this season is Michigan State. Foolhardy as it may have been, Michigan State was almost universally picked to finish in the top three of the Big Ten this season. The "Mark Dantonio is God" hype train was moving forward with so much momentum that ridiculous assertions flew out of newspapers almost on a daily basis. The notion that Michigan State had taken over football supremacy in the state was bordering on fact according to many of the local media outlets. Michigan State's in-state recruiting dominance--something more of a oxymoron in the state of Michigan--was being woven with absurd half-truths like the Detroit Free Press' assertion (don't worry, it's the print page so there will be no evidence of your visit to the Freep) that Devin Gardner was only the 6th best player in the state of Michigan despite being the #1 QB in the country according to Rivals. The green and white propaganda machine was blazin' forward like Lewis and Clark on acid.
The problem with all of State's hype is that it was based on nothing. It was conjecture masquerading as fact. Oddly enough, the people who were most in-tune with what was really going on were recruitniks. Rich Rodriguez was killing it on the recruiting trail all the while MSU was picking up it's usual bin of mid-tier talent with one or two nice scores along the way. College football is about two things and two things only: coaching and talent. Rich Rodriguez has proven to be one of the best coaches in college football so many times now that I'm beginning to think he's doing it on purpose. Mark Dantonio has proven to be an average coach in his time with Cincinnati and Michigan State. Michigan has an enormous edge in "coaching." Anyone who watches college football should know that. What the average fan might not know--and this is why recruiting nuts are the most informed on this subject--is that Rodriguez is getting better athletes at Michigan than he could've ever imagined at West Virginia. This is as close to "1+1=2" as college football gets. A program with better coaching and more talent will--over the longterm--significantly beat out a program with inferior coaching and inferior talent.
In spite of this, MSU did so well in the propaganda game that it actually had an opportunity to turn the "hot air" hype into reality in the same way Spinal Tap capitalized on being a fake band by becoming an actual band. Even though the majority of the claims being made about the program were based on very little, few people would actually ever know that they were based on very little if Michigan State could've met expectations in 2009. Obviously, that didn't happen. Michigan State is 0-3 against I-A schools (I can't do the FBS thing) including a loss to Central Michigan at home. The result is Sparty trying to tell everyone to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. I assume that after a 1-3 start, most people are on to the "act." However, total and undeniable exposure would come with a loss to Michigan on Saturday. A win would allow Sparty to keep up the charade for another week.
That's why this game means way more to MSU than it ever could to Michigan. A loss would move MSU to 1-4 and Michigan to 5-0. The records would be damning enough but the fact that this was supposed to be the year for MSU and a rebuilding year for Michigan would speak volumes about where each program is at and where each program is heading. Don't get me wrong; a loss to Michigan State would be a horrendous blow for Michigan and its fans. It's just that it will have little impact on the program moving forward. On the other hand, a loss for Michigan State would deplete Sparty of its credit limit at the Bank of "hot air."