Unfortunately, with just four bowl wins among Big Ten teams out of a total of 10 participants, the label will continue, as will the affectionate butt kissing toward the all-mighty Southeastern Conference.
Granted, it’s difficult for ESPN broadcasters and other college football pundits not to pucker up toward the SEC, because after Monday evening’s BCS National Championship game between Alabama and LSU in New Orleans, the SEC will be home to the last six title game winners.
At least the Spartans gained a token of respect over the SEC in their thrilling triple-overtime win against Georgia in the Outback Bowl. And at least Michigan can claim themselves as a BCS bowl winner from the Big Ten that doesn’t require an asterick (thanks, Jim Tressel).
The bowl wins by the Wolverines and Spartans clinched the greatest combined wins in one season between the two rivals ever, with both totaling 11.
It’s also just the second time ever that both teams produced 10 or more wins in a season. The last time it occurred was Nick Saban’s final season in East Lansing in 1999, when MSU finished with a 10-2 record and a victory in the Florida Citrus Bowl. Lloyd Carr’s Wolverines also had 10 wins that year, complete with an overtime win against Alabama in the Orange Bowl (the infamous missed extra point game).
Going forward, this rivalry has a chance to develop into its most competitive stretch ever. With all due respect to Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes, this could be the new “10-year War,” but with Brady Hoke and Mark Dantonio stepping to the forefront.
Michigan fans may argue that a Spartans-Wolverines battle may never be as intense and have the national appeal as Michigan-Ohio State, but thanks to the NCAA sanctions in Columbus — which include bowl and Big Ten Championship game bans next year — it’s conceivable to believe Urban Meyer’s magic won’t produce a Big Ten title contender for the Buckeyes until 2014 or later.
At least that’s the hope in East Lansing and Ann Arbor.
Regardless, when the Spartans and Wolverines step onto the field inside the Big House on Oct. 20, 2012, it could not only be a battle for the Legends Division title, but also for a claim as the Big Ten’s best team.
Sure, there are holes to fill and questions to resolve on both rosters, namely, how MSU first-year starter Andrew Maxwell fills in for the departed Kirk Cousins at quarterback; who emerges as his No. 1 target at receiver; and how U-M’s D-line will perform after losing three senior starters.
If anything, Dantonio has established a sense of roster security in East Lansing, where the departures of 2-3 key playmakers creates just a ripple, not a tidal wave of concern. The dominating performance by William Gholston and the rest of the Spartans’ front seven against Georgia assures that MSU won’t slip much — if at all — in 2012, despite the departure of several veteran offensive playmakers.
The job Hoke and defense coordinator Greg Mattison did in transforming a program in shambles under Rich Rodriguez into a Sugar Bowl champion was nothing short of remarkable. Now Hoke faces the pressure of sustaining that success, with a much tougher schedule awaiting. U-M will return as many as 15 starters next season, including its electric quarterback, Denard Robinson, and a recruiting class more in tune to Hoke’s vision that’s ranked among the best in the nation.
No one expected Michigan to reach a championship level as quickly as it did under Hoke, but at the same time, the Wolverines must wonder when, or if, they’ll regain their throne as kings of college football in their own state.
Dantonio and MSU will have something to say about that. With four-straight wins, the Spartans are currently in control of the rivalry, but it’s about to become much more difficult to experience continued success, regardless what colors you wear on Saturdays.
With both programs finally boasting a powerful voice in this rivalry, it demands to be seen and heard more than ever before — even in SEC country.