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. 

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