East Lansing -- Do they have it in them?
That, in so many words, is the question everyone's asking the Wolverines this week. And today they'll be asked again in rather hostile fashion in East Lansing, where the Spartans have already answered in the affirmative for themselves, prompted by their head coach.
Mark Dantonio has flipped the script for Michigan State's football program in so many words and so many ways — none more dramatically than in this in-state rivalry. But now it's Michigan's turn to state its intentions, facing a fierce opponent and what, to many, seems to be a predetermined fate. Kickoff is scheduled for just after 3:30 p.m. at a sold-out Spartan Stadium, and judging by most of the hype this week, the game should be over by, oh, maybe 4:30 or so?
"You can talk about underdogs, you can talk about those things," said Michigan coach Brady Hoke, whose team is listed as a 17-point underdog, if you care to listen to such things. "But I think when you start talking about rivalry games, things change a little bit, to some degree."
To what degree this Michigan team and this coaching staff can change the rivalry or tip the scales — the Spartans have won five of the last six in the series, including last year's 29-6 demolition in East Lansing — remains to be seen.
But what we heard this week probably spoke volumes about where these two programs are right now. The eighth-ranked Spartans, who have won 12 consecutive Big Ten games dating to 2012, talked openly and confidently about their feelings regarding this rivalry, while the Wolverines — languishing at 3-4, with Hoke on the hot seat — said little, if anything.
Frankly, as plans go, this was as cohesive and well-executed as anything we've seen from the Wolverines on the field in quite some time. And if the idea was to avoid adding more fuel to the Spartans' already-stoked fire, they've done that, at least.
Asked about his players giving the media the silent treatment, Hoke laughed, "Well, you know, they're pretty educated guys."
Of course, it doesn't take a genius to see what Dantonio has done on the other side of the fence. Since returning to East Lansing to take the reins of a wayward bandwagon in 2007, the former MSU assistant has done a masterful job in reshaping the narrative of this sibling rivalry.
Dantonio championed the Michigan game as a way "to establish your credibility," knowing his program was never going to get anywhere as long as it was playing second fiddle in its own state. (When a reporter asked him Monday if he and MSU's basketball coach, Tom Izzo, were kindred spirits in that way, Dantonio deadpanned, "Kinda, yeah.")
He also played the disrespect card, seizing on slights both real and perceived, most famously after Michigan's Mike Hart taunted the Spartans with his "little brother" comment after the 2007 game — the Wolverines' sixth win in a row in the series.
And what seemed like pouting then — "Pride comes before the fall," Dantonio scolded — now seems prophetic. Michigan State is eyeing a second Big Ten title in as many years, while Michigan fans are clamoring for a third coaching search in seven. So who's wearing the hand-me-downs now?
"I've said all along here: I didn't make these rules, I'm just playing by 'em," Dantonio insisted this week. "And I keep trying to play by them. … You embrace it. You get involved in it, and it's in you."
And it's in Michigan's best interest to respond in kind, if they're so inclined, understanding the narrative doesn't always follow a conventional plot structure in college football.
This is only the seventh time since the Associated Press began its weekly football poll that a ranked Michigan State team will face an unranked Michigan squad. The last two times that happened, Michigan won — in 1968 and again in 2005.
Can the Wolverines do it again? Of course they can, though Michigan hasn't beaten a ranked opponent on the road since 2006, and an upset today would probably rank as the school's biggest since Lloyd Carr's team stunned Ohio State in Columbus in 1996.
But really, that's the wrong question, isn't it?
The question we're asking, beyond the X's and O's and the daunting statistics, is the one Michigan's players coyly avoided all week: Do they have it in them?
If they do, this annual "slobber-knocker" — as MSU's Travis Jackson so eloquently described it — is their best chance to prove it, and maybe the last chance for some.
And if they don't? Well, the Spartans — and their fans — will be happy to let them know.