Wojo's Pigskin Picks: Rivalry lives in brave new world

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Well, I hope the Spartans are happy with themselves. In a brutish, arrogant manner, they've squeezed out all the angst and animosity from one of the greatest rivalries in the entire Great Lakes region. Good job, fellas.

What's the point now? The Spartans and Wolverines are preparing to clash Saturday and there's no vitriol, no barbs. Michigan State is 6-1 and making plans for the four-team national playoff, unless the Southeastern Conference decides otherwise. Michigan is 3-4 and reevaluating its entire leadership structure, leaving little time for the day-to-day issues of blocking and scoring.

The Spartans have overtaken the state with five victories in the past six meetings and are favored by 17. Coincidentally, that's the point spread and the over-under on the Wolverines punt total. As evidence of its newfound power, Michigan State gets to manipulate the schedule so its instate "rival" is a tuneup for the showdown in two weeks against its real rival, Ohio.

I'm not saying the annual backyard brawl has turned into a frontyard bawl. I'm just saying I overheard this fake conversation between a Spartan and a Wolverine, and it was kind of sad.

Spartan Sam: "Come on bud, let's make a bet! Whaddaya say?! We win, I don't have to do your lawn for a whole year!" (Jabs at his buddy's chest). "What, you SCARED??"

Wolverine Wally: "Uh, the wife says we have to get the dog groomed Saturday. And then … (soft sobs) … we're going to the apple orchard."

You think I'm exaggerating? You think I'm using the same lame stereotypes, just burying them in the Michigan wreckage? Give me more credit than that.

The rivalry has changed, in ways our forefathers never intended. Last year, the Spartans were outright mean in their 29-6 victory, holding the Wolverines a mere 48 rushing yards shy of the zero mark. Michigan State's pounding run to the Rose Bowl began right there, at the same point Michigan began its solemn retreat.

Michigan State now carries supreme confidence, while Michigan tries to shield its athletic director from teeming hordes of students demanding lower ticket prices and the inalienable right to show up for games midway through the second quarter. Dave Brandon is feeling the heat, in case you haven't noticed. Brady Hoke is feeling the heat, in case he hasn't noticed. Hoke has adopted a calm, business-as-usual approach, and clearly has instructed his players to do the same.

For instance, this was the general response from glassy-eyed Michigan players this week: "It's. Just. The. Next. Game. On. Our. Schedule. … Actually, we're sick of …" (ZZZZAAAPP from electrode in neck). "They. Have. Great. Players. With. Big. Muscles."

Everything is fake and forced now, and it's entirely Michigan State's fault. The Wolverines can barely feign arrogance anymore. And under Mark "Bo" Dantonio, the Spartans are extremely adept at hiding old insecurities and lying about their concerns for the game. Essentially, they've swiped the Wolverines identity, along with their Starbucks money.

I understand Michigan ruined the rivalry for about 38 years, winning 30 times from 1970-2007. But the difference is, Michigan State didn't back away, always determined to pull the occasional wacky upset. The hostility grew, frankly, to unhealthy levels, peaking when the "little brother" label officially was affixed a few years ago.

So the question is, in the new era of Little Brother-versus-Littler Brother, will the Wolverines take it personally? Will they respond angrily to repeated incursions into their backfield and attacks upon their quarterback? Or will it be like the other day, when a roving band of Spartans marched onto Michigan's Diag, blitzed through the open gap as Pat Narduzzi instructed, and painted the famed block M green. It was so easy, eyewitnesses said they thought Michigan's offensive line was in charge of protection.

That's a cheap shot, precisely the kind that makes a mundane rivalry more intense. Now it's Michigan's turn to show some feisty passion. Does Hoke drop a "pride comes before the fall" line? Does Michigan hire a friendly clock operator with a sticky finger for those last-second finishes?

As long as Michigan wanders aimlessly, reacting to every cry and sigh from alums and fans and blustery commentators, it won't be back. All across college football, schools brush aside academic scandals and alleged seafood heists by Heisman-winning quarterbacks. At Michigan, the use of skywriting planes and fireworks spawns town-hall meetings and prayer groups.

Somehow, the Spartans stopped getting caught up in such nonsense. Now, if they truly plan to rule the state for an extended period, I've drawn up a list of guidelines they need to follow:

■ Drop the obsession, people. You've made your point — you were tormented for generations, going back to 1949, when Michigan allegedly didn't want you bringing your livestock into the Big Ten. There's a whole world of national acclaim out there — go get it!

■ Henceforth, your biggest rival is Ohio. Followed by Penn State. Followed by Indiana. Repeat this to your Michigan friends, watch them blink in disbelief.

■ Hire a skywriter for Saturday's game and have it scrawl your deepest hope for the rivalry: "Keep Hoke Alive."

■ If you're still so inclined — and I'm not suggesting you are! — find higher-quality furniture to incinerate after big games. I'd recommend a nice leather love seat with an ottoman.

■ Pompously pump up your status. You don't have Spartan "buddies" or "drinking pals" anymore. You have fellow "Michigan State Men." If that's too pretentious, these are acceptable: Sparty Man, Green Man, Ma Main Man.

Consider this a public service to Spartans and Wolverines everywhere. In a safe and orderly manner, please adjust accordingly.

Pick: Michigan State Men 34-13

The picks

Ohio (State) at Penn State: The Buckeyes face the same dilemma as the Spartans — try to destroy a Big Ten opponent without destroying what's left of the Big Ten's reputation. Urban Meyer doesn't strike me as the sensitive type. Ohio State 42-10

Minnesota at Illinois: Who knows, if the plucky Gophers keep winning in this altered landscape, maybe they'll play the Spartans in the Big Ten title game for the Little Brown Jug. Minnesota 27-17