Michigan-Michigan St. Preview
As if there weren't already enough riding on the outcome - bragging rights, an upper hand in recruiting, national rankings and just a general dislike of the opponent - Saturday's Michigan at Michigan State game also could decide who plays in the Big Ten championship game.
However, don't count on Wolverines coach Brady Hoke to even mention that.
"If you get ahead of yourself, you're really going to make a mistake," he said Tuesday during the conference's coaches' call. "Our thoughts and everything that we're focusing on is going up to East Lansing and competing like hell with Michigan State."
Heading into the final month of the regular season, there's a strong competition taking shape for supremacy in the Legends Division.
No. 24 Michigan State (7-1, 4-0) leads the way, with hated rival 23rd-ranked Michigan (6-1, 2-1) right behind.
"We have our goals, just like everybody else," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. "And among our goals is to be in that championship game and then to win it."
Michigan State made it to the inaugural title game in 2011 before losing to Wisconsin. The Spartans then regrouped to beat Georgia in a bowl game.
It's not as if anyone will clinch the Legends Division title this weekend.
After a bye next week, Michigan State plays at Nebraska and at Northwestern before closing out the regular season at home against Minnesota.
The Wolverines have an even bigger set of hurdles: Nebraska at home, at Northwestern, at Iowa and then No. 4 Ohio State at The Big House on Nov. 30.
Few coaches consider it a successful season if their team doesn't make it to the conference title game.
"As a competitor, there's no question that the goals are always high, the expectations are high," Hoke said. "So when you don't achieve those aspirations - which everyone in this conference has which is to win the conference - then it obviously hasn't been the kind of year that you want."
Michigan got manhandled in its last game at Michigan State, and the Wolverines are promising that won't happen again.
"They bullied us," offensive tackle Taylor Lewan recalled Monday. "That's tough for me to admit because I don't like getting bullied."
Michigan will be without bruising tight end A.J. Williams, who started the last four games, because Hoke said the sophomore violated unspecified team rules.
"It's certainly disappointing when one of your kids makes a very poor decision," Hoke said in a statement released by the school after his weekly news conference. "A.J. realizes he has let a lot of people down, including himself. As families do, we will help A.J. as he learns a valuable lesson from this."
The Spartans beat Michigan 28-14 in 2011 for their fourth straight win in the rivalry. Last year, the Wolverines snapped the losing streak in Ann Arbor with a 12-10 win to avoid dropping five straight for the first time in the series that began in 1898.
Michigan offensive tackle Michael Schofield was asked what seniors say to younger teammates to get them ready for what they will face on the field at Spartan Stadium.
"Sixty minutes of unnecessary roughness," he said.
Schofield borrowed the phrase used by Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi after the game two years ago. He later apologized for the comment and was admonished by athletic director Mark Hollis.
As much as Michigan doesn't like the Spartans, its coaches and players respect them - especially on defense. Hoke said the Spartans are as good on defense as any team in college football, and Michigan State has allowed three points in its last two games.
The Spartans' strength will likely test Michigan's weakness, the interior of its offensive line.
"They have a great defense," Schofield said. "It will be a great test for our offense. We could really show what our offense could do if we do well against these guys."
With a Big Ten championship drought that dates to 2004, Hoke has let his players know what is at stake in the standings against the Spartans.
"You'd be foolish not to," Hoke said.
Michigan enters well-rested after beating Indiana 63-47 at home on Oct. 19, while Michigan State won 42-3 at Illinois last Saturday for its fourth straight win.
The Spartans entered the rankings Sunday for the first time this season.
"I think our main focus is what's going on in our conference right now and playing ourselves to the end of the regular season," Dantonio said. "I have been on football teams that have been ranked early in the season and faded out. Been on teams that never have been ranked and ended ninth in the country.
"I think you play things out to the end and you have to understand that a lot of this is motivated by votes. If you just keep winning your games, good things happen."