Why do we watch college sports? With the college football season knocking on our door, it’s something I’ve thought about recently. It’s not the highest level of the sport. Every year there’s a conversation of, “Could the best college team beat the worst pro team?” The answer is always a resounding, “No.” Even the worst pro teams are made up of the best of the best that colleges offer and would absolutely crush any college team.
So why do we watch? We watch for the thrill, I think. The unexpected can happen at any time. We watch because we have connections to these places and schools, whether it’s ourselves who went there or our family and friends. We watch for the rivalries. This kind of intense passion and these meaningful stand-offs just don’t exist at the higher levels of the sport. Here in Michigan, we’ve got a rivalry that has exemplified these ideas for decades. We’ve got the Michigan Wolverines and the Michigan State Spartans.
(Note: while the Paul Bunyan Trophy is a pretty neat trophy for the rivalry, I’ll be focusing more on the actual on the field results and players than on the trophy in this article)
The First Game
It’s safe to say that if you live in the Great Lakes State you or someone in your family has a preference between the two schools. Maybe because you or someone you’re related to went to the school. Perhaps it’s because of proximity to Ann Arbor or East Lansing. Or maybe it’s just something you decided one day as a kid. No matter your origin story in the rivalry, it’s safe to say that you weren’t around for the original go-round. The schools first played each other in 1898, a game Michigan won 39-2. The two teams didn’t play each other every year until decades later, which contributes to Michigan State not picking up their first win in the series until 1913, a 12-7 decision.
With a 69-35-5 advantage in the rivalry, there are several large spans where the Wolverines didn’t lose for many years. That includes a stretch of 16 wins and 2 ties from 1916-1933, 10 straight victories from 1938-1949 (the teams didn’t play in 1943 and 1944), and 8 straight from 1970-1977. That’s not to say Michigan State hasn’t gone on runs of their own, though. The Spartans didn’t lose between 1956 and 1963, racking up 6 wins and 2 ties. State has also dominated the recent years of the rivalry, winning 7 of the last 9 games after Michigan won 6 in a row during the early 2000’s.
While going through the numbers, a surprise that manifests is how infrequently close this rivalry is. Throughout the 109 games played between the schools, only 25 (excluding ties) have had the winner decided by a touchdown or less. That doesn’t mean there’s no drama, of course. We only have to go back two years for the kind of thrilling finish that makes this rivalry thrive. Michigan fans, you might want to skip over this video:
Jalen Watts-Jackson’s miraculous fumble return isn’t the only close game in recent years, either. 2012’s edition of the game might be most memorable for being one of the uglier displays of football since the early 20th century, with Michigan winning 12-10 despite never coming particularly close to scoring a touchdown. In 2004 the teams went into triple overtime before Chad Henne and Braylon Edwards connected to win the game for Michigan, 45-37. It was actually the first of two years in a row that Michigan would prevail in overtime. Although, the Spartans got their overtime revenge in 2009.
While it is a college rivalry, it’s not like these are just two groups of scrappy college players going at it. Both teams produce NFL talent at a solid clip. According to ESPN’s list, Michigan once again has an edge over Michigan State here, with 38 current players in the pros compared to Michigan State’s 35. Both teams have a mix of role players and stars playing in the NFL. For Michigan, there are huge names like Tom Brady and Jabrill Peppers alongside contributors like Kenny Allen and Erik Magnuson. For Michigan State, Kirk Cousins and Le’Veon Bell have done wonders for our fantasy football teams. Guys like Jack Conklin and Riley and Max Bullough make an impact for their pro teams too.
What will this year bring?
Going into this season, it’s hard to say what the game will look like this year. Mark Dantonio has shaped Michigan State into a football powerhouse in the last decade. However, the Spartans suffered tremendously from the lost talent of the previous year’s graduating class. They played miserably throughout the season on the way to a 3-9 record last year. This might seem like a good time for Jim Harbaugh’s newly revitalized Wolverine team to seize control of the rivalry once again. However, all might not be as peachy as it seems for Michigan. While they’ve had excellent seasons under Harbaugh, they still haven’t fully gotten back over the hump to compete for national titles year in and year out. Stories like this one reported by MLive earlier in August indicate that the starting quarterback job for the Maize and Blue is still very much in flux.
The battle between the Michigan Wolverines and Michigan State Spartans is always prime viewing for Mitten State residents. Aided by great players, great coaches, and a long history on the field, it’s safe to say this rivalry isn’t losing any of its luster anytime soon.
What’s your favorite Michigan/Michigan State memory? Who are you rooting for this year?
Scores, records, stats, and dates sourced from sports-reference.com.