This is what the Spartans have craved, to be ushered past college football's red velvet rope without having to show their ID every stinkin' time. After years of beating the Wolverines, they want to take that next step and get themselves a bigger, juicier national rival. They want to be defined by one classic game late in the season, in the hope it would force dopes (hi!) to spell and pronounce their coach's name correctly.
Well, here it is, and I'm not sure they know what they're getting into. If you really want to battle the Buckeyes with major ramifications every year, you have to prepare for the consequences. That means Ohio State will give you its full attention, and might even refer to you as "That School Up North and Slightly to the East." (Buckeyes aren't real good at geography.)
It means you'll face the tobacco-spittin' wrath of Buckeyes fans, who used to be your compatriots. You were bonded by a love of Schlitz and a mutual hatred of the Wolverines, and it was fine for 40 years or so. But you craved more and now you have it Saturday — The Game before The Game, unbeaten The Ohio State University hosting unbeaten The Michigan State University* (* fluky loss redacted).
You know this is huge because the Spartans are two-touchdown underdogs and very annoyed by it. I'm not sure why, but under well-known coach Dan Antonio, they always play with a stacked deck of disrespect cards. It works well, along with having great players, a great staff and a really great punt-rush unit.
The winner seizes control of the division race, with the best shot to reach the championship game and hammer Iowa, thus saving the Big Ten from national humiliation. Don't let those wacky rankings fool you — whoever wins the Big Ten title will end up in the four-team playoff, even if it's 11-1 Michigan* (* fluky loss redacted).
I just hope our Spartans friends are ready for this. Remember when you used to be able to drive to Columbus for the game without fear of being pulled over for going 70.5 in a 70-mph zone? Ha-ha, those days are over. Remember when you could take Grandma Hazel to the Horseshoe without fear of having an 11-year-old Buckeyes demon-child give her the double-fingered salute? Leave Grandma home, please, and rent a car with Kentucky plates.
Even after winning all sorts of big games and fancy bowls, this could be Michigan State's official entrance to an exclusive club. And trust me, Ohio State doesn't appreciate anyone intruding on its littered turf. It's a prideful place down there, and those people are determined to remain the Big Ten leaders when it comes to setting stuff on fire after rivalry games.
Frankly, I don't see why Ohio State is such a heavy favorite. (Actually, I sort of do.) It beat powerhouses Northern Illinois and Indiana by a mere touchdown, and was so bored by its embarrassingly easy schedule, some players reportedly started going to class just to pass the time.
I'm aware Michigan State has its own issues, such as ruthlessly shoving Nebraska receivers out of bounds at inopportune times. The battered Spartans secondary also now uses a walk-on horticulture major named Chad Whippleworth at nickel back.
But hey, Connor Cook says his shoulder feels great, and there's a seven-percent chance he's not lying. That's key, because Cook is so good, experts say he'd easily be the fourth-best quarterback on Ohio State's roster. Actually, Urban Meyer called Cook one of the best in Big Ten history, lifting from the pandering chapter of the Urban Dictionary. Meyer also reportedly praised Sparty for being a "much more muscular" mascot than Brutus Buckeye.
These are strange times in our Mitten State, with Michigan needing Ohio State to beat Michigan State to keep Michigan's Big Ten title hopes alive. This forces the Wolverines to root for the Buckeyes, which is a crime against nature. It's such a filthy act, there's a chance Michigan will eliminate itself on its own terms by losing to Penn State earlier Saturday.
It's even a bit weird for the Spartans and Buckeyes, warily eying each other like the biggest bucks chasing the same poor doe. Since Meyer got there, there have been surprising thumpings — 49-37 by Ohio State last year, 34-24 by Michigan State in 2013 — and one ugly 17-16 Buckeyes victory. Meyer is 30-0 in regular-season conference games, but that hasn't stopped the fan bases from getting fired up, as you can tell by this imaginary exchange I secretly recorded:
Spartan Sam: "You think you guys are tough? We've crushed those snobby jerks seven of the last eight times. And we beat Harbaugh!"
Buckeye Burt: "Ha! We've killed 'em 10 of 11 and ran off two of their coaches!"
Spartan Sam (stroking beard): "You know what, dude? You're not so bad after all. High five!"
(Clumsy hand slap, spilling beer).
It should be quite an atmosphere down in Columbus, as long as confused Buckeyes fans don't send their trailer convoy to Ann Arbor early in anticipation of the other The Game. We'll know the rivalries have shifted for good if Meyer goes for two late in the game, and if Grandma Hazel has her Spartans beanie stolen right off her head.
Pick: Ohio State 34-23
■Michigan at Penn State: While the Spartans are chemically addicted to disrespect, the Wolverines suffer from an unhealthy craving for unnecessary drama, with three of their past four games decided on the final play. The Nittany Lions are afflicted with terminal blandness, but Jim Harbaugh has to make sure his team isn't looking ahead to the Spartans-Buckeyes clash, which starts just about the time the Wolverines will be scoring in the third overtime. Michigan 20-17
■Purdue at Iowa: The Hawkeyes are 10-0 and getting dangerously close to semi-legitimacy, and can clinch a spot in the Big Ten championship game if they win this one. Unless, of course, Jim Delany does the right thing and declares the West Division ineligible for anything other than the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, which is a real event, I swear. Iowa 23-14
■Notre Dame at Boston College: They're playing in Fenway Park as part of the Irish's Shamrock Series, a novel concept designed to defile as many classic baseball fields as possible. In a touching tribute to his son, Torii Hunter Jr., who plays for the Irish, former Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter is expected to perform a ceremonial tumble over the right-field fence as a bemused Boston cop looks on. Green Irish Monster 30-16
■Baylor at Oklahoma State: In a disturbing development, Oklahoma State (the "other Oklahoma") is 10-0 and no longer joking about getting to the playoff. It's still difficult to take these Big 12 circus acts seriously, but this is not the Cowboys' first rodeo. Uh, check that. It is. Oklahoma State 52-45