Thomas: Michigan State, opponent of many, rival of none

Rivalry weekend is an amazing weekend to be a college football fan. Across the country, college football teams line up against their biggest rivals. Some of these contests are more lopsided recently, with the Georgia-Georgia Tech or Clemson-South Carolina games coming to mind, but the hate is still strong between the two teams. And in most of these regular season finale contests, the records simply don’t matter. Minnesota-Wisconsin, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, Alabama-Auburn, the rivalries are fierce, the games are classics, and the college football fan is content to sit on their couch and watch some of the most intensely contested games of the season.

Of course, there’s the greatest rivalry of them all as well. Often the site of College Gameday that weekend, Michigan and Ohio State do battle at the end of each regular season. The hate between these two teams is unmatched, so much that Ohio State, and indeed much of the state of Ohio, replaces the letter “M” with a giant ‘X’ in all signs and tweets leading up to the game. But then what about the hate between Michigan and Michigan State? Well, as much as the Spartans would like you to believe this is a true rivalry, it quite simply has not been, and it likely never will be. Michigan States’ rivalry-weekend match-up? It varies; last year it was Maryland, the two years prior it was Rutgers – a couple of cellar-dwelling Big 10 teams for Michigan State to beat up on while their hated rivals goes and plays their biggest game of the year with someone else. 

Michigan States’ inability to get a true rivalry-weekend match-up, or even a rivalry with anybody, goes well beyond the Michigan saga. If you look up Michigan State rivals, you get a list of just four teams: Michigan, Notre Dame, Indiana, and Penn State. Not an inspiring list, especially considering every single one of these teams has bigger rivals.
The Spartans’ biggest hope comes in Penn State, another team who may lack a true rival. But the Nittany Lions don’t care, often proclaiming themselves as their biggest rivals, competing against the premier Penn State teams of previous decades. Plus, Penn State has big games closer to home in Pitt and Maryland, a more historic rivalry in Nebraska, and a budding rivalry with Ohio State. They don’t need Michigan State. 

How about Notre Dame? There’s been some big games, and there is no doubt about that, but Michigan State has tried to fuel this rivalry far more than Notre Dame, and it’s hard to do that when you have a .373 winning percentage against them. The Spartans’ planted their flag at Notre Dame’s home stadium after a 2005 win, and they won in 2010 on the infamous “Little Giant” fake field goal. But, Notre Dame has their rivalries with USC and Michigan, their uninterrupted series with Navy, and the Holy War with BC. In a recent survey of their student body, Notre Dame didn’t even vote for the Spartans as one of their top-6 rivals. Ouch. They clearly don’t need Michigan State. 

Indiana? To be honest, even if Michigan State could consider Indiana a rival, it wouldn’t be saying much. The Hoosiers are far more known for their basketball prowess, and they have not ever really been particularly relevant in football. They have never eclipsed nine wins in a season, and they haven’t even reached that mark since 1967. Plus, Indiana has their own in-state rivalry with Purdue, so even they’ve got bigger fish to fry than the Spartans. If that’s Michigan State’s best rival, it’s a pretty sad one for a big-name program with six national championships. 

And that brings the list full circle to Michigan. The Wolverines will call Michigan State “Little Brother” and for good reason. Despite some recent success in the series, the Spartans are just 36-71 against Michigan, good for a .344 winning percentage. It’s embarrassing, and it’s more embarrassing because they’re not even Michigan’s biggest game of the year. They sometimes aren’t even second, as you can debate whether the Notre Dame versus Michigan rivalry is a bigger one too. 

Michigan State has had success on the field, and under current coach Mark Dantonio, they’ve been in the Top 5 in four different seasons. But seemingly no success will make Michigan State relevant unless something drastic changes. 

They can plant a flag at Notre Dame Stadium. They can fuel their hatred for Michigan. They can claim that Penn State hates them, or maybe, if they’re desperate, fall back on their ‘rivalry’ with Indiana. But come rivalry weekend, Michigan State will be in Maryland, or hosting Rutgers, or playing some other low-level Big 10 team, desperately searching for a team that will hate them back. 

Saturday’s Big 10 Recaps And Takeaways

There were very few Big 10 games yesterday, but they were both absolute thrillers, so here’s a quick recap and takeaway from the Big 10 games yesterday, along with results from Friday and games to come on Sunday/

Illinois 64 Michigan 62

The Recap: What a game. Ayo Dosunmu poured in 27 for the Illini including his game-winner with half a second left as Illinois took down the Wolverines on the road to improve to 15-5 overall and take the sole lead in the Big 10 standings. 

The Takeaway: Michigan is not a threat. Lots of credit is due to Illinois, but Michigan just doesn’t seem to have that ‘it’ factor this year. They’ve lost four straight games, all by less than ten points, and they seem unable to pull out wins in close games. 

Rutgers 75 Nebraska 72

The Recap: Well there wasn’t a lot of Big 10 teams in action on Saturday, but the games that were played made up for that. Following Illinois’s buzzer-beater, Geo Baker buried a three with 1.1 seconds to play and Rutgers survived a stiff test from Nebraska at home. 

The Takeaway: No Conference Game is ever a lock. I’m not sure if I learned much about Rutgers, and I’m not any higher on Nebraska after their tight loss, but it does speak to the parity in college basketball. For teams with NCAA tournament aspirations, avoiding letdowns in games they should win will be critical to securing a berth or higher seed come Selection Sunday. 

Friday’s Games


Purdue 70 Wisconsin 51

Sunday’s Games

#17 Maryland @ Indiana

#11 Michigan State @ Minnesota

Ohio State @ Northwestern

Big 10 Status Report: Luka Garza Is Really Good, And Other News

Much like the ACC, I don’t believe the top of the power structure in the Big 10 has changed too much. Michigan State is still the odds-on favorite, and I still regard Maryland and Ohio State as their biggest challengers. However, beyond that? Identifying favorites is a complete nightmare, as results have varied greatly. Here’s a look at who is boosting their stock, and who is struggling in the conference.

Biggest Risers: Iowa, Rutgers, Penn State

  • Iowa has soared into the national picture courtesy of the potential Big 10 player of the year in Luka Garza. Garza continues to put up monster numbers and has essentially put the Hawkeyes on his back. After a disappointing loss to Nebraska 16 days ago, Iowa has won four straight, including wins over Rutgers and Maryland. This team has the skill and star power to make a little run in March.
  • Rutgers is one of the hottest teams in the country, even with their close loss to Iowa last night. They are propelled by their 13-0 record at home, and they are extremely close to making a breakthrough on the road, having lost several tight ones to ranked opponents away from home. They’ll need to improve in that area to push themselves into true Big 10 title contention, but the Scarlet Knights are surprisingly relevant in their conference right now.
  • After a tough start to Big 10 play, Penn State is starting to get hot. They put together an impressive performance to beat Ohio State at home. The Buckeyes had beaten the Nittany Lions by 30 points earlier in the year. They then went to Ann Arbor and took down a solid Michigan squad, 72-63. After their slow start in conference games largely negated their impressive 10-1 non-conference record, the Nittany Lions are playing their way back into the Big 10 conversation.

Biggest Fallers: Purdue, Michigan

  • Last week, I was praising Purdue for their ability to win at home. After a 71-42 throttling of Michigan State, they looked like a team that could stay relevant due to their home-court advantage. However, they followed up easily their most impressive result of the year with a road loss to Maryland and then a 79-62 flop at home to Illinois. Maybe that was a blip on the radar in the big picture, but the tough loss did a lot to damage the perception of Purdue being extremely tough to beat in their own house.
  • Michigan has now lost three straight and four of five in Big 10 games, as the Wolverines seem unable to keep up with their conference foes. Last night’s home loss to Penn State was the most concerning, as the Wolverines looked extremely flat at times on their own court, outclassed by an unranked opponent. Michigan is hardly looking like a Big 10 contender, and they certainly don’t resemble the national contender they were heralded to be during the preseason.

Quick Hits

  • My current prediction is that 8 teams in the Big 10 make the NCAA Tournament field, but I could see that number fluctuating as the surprising results pour in. Currently I predict Michigan State, Maryland, Ohio State, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Rutgers to secure tournament berths.
  • I believe four Big 10 teams are still very much in the picture, and they have a lot to play for down the stretch: Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Minnesota.
  • I’m declaring 2 teams officially dead in the Big 10 picture, and those teams are Northwestern and Nebraska, who have combined for a 3-13 mark in Big 10 play.

Biggest Upcoming Games

  • #17 Maryland @ Indiana
  • #11 Michigan State @ Minnesota
  • Wisonsin @ #19 Iowa