Tomorrow, two football teams will take the field in Ann Arbor, MI and wage a battle for one of the most abominable-looking trophies in all of sports. Those two teams are the University of Michigan Wolverines and the Michigan State Spartans, and that trophy is the Paul Bunyan Trophy (not to be confused with Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the ill-conceived replacement reward for the winner of the Minnesota/Wisconsin game, which replaced the apparently outmoded, but nonetheless fantastic, Slab of Bacon they used to play for).
Make no mistake about it – this is a rivalry game for both teams, regardless of what some Michigan fans may say otherwise. Yes, Ohio State is a more loathed (and respected) rival, but that doesn’t take away from the ferocity and barbarity on display between fans and players when these two in-state adversaries meet on the gridiron.
Through my experiences in the rivalry, I can say that the fan bases from each respective school love nothing more than to make sweeping generalizations about each other. Michigan fans seem to believe Michigan State fans and the school itself both have an inferiority complex, and wish so desperately that they could be as cool as the University of Michigan and their fans. In perfect contrast, Michigan State fans tend to believe that Michigan fans and the school itself could not be more pompous and full of egocentrism, like the over-confident popular kid in high school. I’m of the belief that both of these widely-held viewpoints hold some validity; however, to say that they are representative of even a majority of the fan base of either side would be a gross hyperbole. The whole “Little Brother” fiasco is a perfect example of this.
I’m not going to beat around the bush or try to hide my affiliation; I am a University of Michigan alumnus. Thus, I do get a kick out of referring to Michigan State University as little brother, but only because of how bent out of shape Spartans get when I do this. It’s just like what they teach you in elementary school as a kid – when someone teases you, if you react strongly, they’re going to keep doing it to get on your nerves. When you learn how to ignore it and show them that it no longer bothers you, then odds are they will stop doing it. Another potentially effective method is to win four consecutive games in the rivalry.
In any of the most recent football-related tete-a-tetes between fans from these schools, the Spartan representative is almost certainly going to bring up the last four years. A young, naive Wolverine will inevitably resort to one of two responses – (A) Highlighting the prestigious history of the University of Michigan football program, or (B) Belittling Michigan State academics and the students who attend the university. It’s identical to the “Little Brother” theory, but is achieved simply as a result of a different mechanism. Michigan fans are unnecessarily embarrassed about losing to Michigan State in football 4 years running now, so they get defensive and resort to desperation; it’s just silly. Michigan State had a better football team than Michigan in 2008, 2009, and 2010, and they outplayed an evenly matched Michigan team in 2011 – it’s really that simple. The best thing to do as a Michigan fan right now is to stop rubbing salt in your own wound and focus on forward-thinking, i.e. what’s going to happen this year?
Brady Hoke is undefeated at home as Michigan’s head football coach. Unlike the past 4 years, Michigan is back to having a better, more athletic football team this year than Michigan State. Michigan is coming off two blowout victories and Michigan State just suffered a heartbreaking overtime loss to Iowa on their homecoming weekend. The majority of sportsbooks in Vegas are giving the Spartans 10 points. All signs point to Michigan finally ending the streak.
Nevertheless, signs have been wrong before in sports. All you have to do is take one look at the Cleveland Indians from back in the day – who would have thought in mid-July of that fateful year that Ricky Vaughn, Willie Mayes Hayes, and Pedro Cerrano would lead the Tribe to the postseason? But, I digress. I’m going to be cheering on the Wolverines as vigorously as possible come 3:30 PM on Saturday, and I hope for my own personal sanity that they are able to finally put this thing to bed, so I can stop hearing the conveniently arbitrary number of days since Michigan last won a game in the series.