The Big Ten East in 2016 is sure to be one of the most hotly-contested divisions in college football.
Ohio State seems to be on a relative downturn after consistency to the nth degree under Urban Meyer. This could be the first year under Urban Meyer where the Buckeyes could viably lose to both Michigan State and Michigan in the same season.
Michigan continues to rise under Jim Harbaugh and has been rated as high as #3 in pre-season polls. Michigan State again is put in the underdog role but have many established pieces along offense and defense along with a very favorable schedule with both Michigan and Ohio State at home this season.
The three colossus programs of the Big Ten East will be clashing on the most even playing field we have seen since the conference expanded to divisions. Each team will get a viable crack at the other and no team will be spared from the ensuing conflict.
All of this speculation brought one interesting question to mind: Which game will be bigger this season? Michigan at Michigan State (10/29/16), Ohio State at Michigan State (11/19/16), or Michigan at Ohio State (11/26/16)?
The case for U-M/MSU
First off, let’s just state how much of a raw deal it is that Ohio State is the only school of the Big Three that gets a home and away scenario every year. Michigan being on the road for both MSU and OSU is pretty daunting even for a rising phoenix like Harbaugh’s Wolverines.
The case for this game can be stated quite easily, however. For one, it is the first game since the chaotic, life-altering event where the punter “has trouble with the snap… And the ball is free!” This game will have more plot-lines than any other rivalry game this year in college football. The storylines of the first game after last year, the growing state of both programs, the budding rivalry, and the very likely chance of a 7-0 Michigan team going into a stadium they haven’t won in since 2007.
This rivalry has truly been one of the best in the nation since Michigan State rose to relevance and this game will only strengthen the importance of the Michigan-Michigan State game. Almost assuredly, College Gameday will be in East Lansing along with the entire state fighting for the entire week leading up to it. Valenti and Foster will have record caller numbers, newspapers will have wars of words, and local sports personalities will put their lines in the sand ready for a clash between brothers, families, friends, and all Michiganders all over the world.
This game could be the turning point where Michigan-Michigan State overtakes Michigan-Ohio State as the most important rivalry in the Big Ten, especially if both programs continue to excel. It should also be mentioned that the Michigan-Ohio State game loses/gains relevance with the result of this game.
The case for OSU/MSU
This game is a precarious one. Both schools have Michigan slotted as their biggest rival, yet each school has been in each other’s path for the better part of five years.
Michigan State has been the only viable threat to Urban Meyer’s reign over the Big Ten since 2012; the Spartans being the only program to beat the Buckeyes since Meyer took over. The two losses to Michigan State has surely brought the ire of Uncle Urban north to East Lansing and could create an ugly setting on November 19th.
This game also serves as a possible “calm” before the storm that is “The Game”. Somehow, the Big Ten scheduling committee decided it would be a great idea to schedule Michigan State and Michigan back-to-back for the Buckeyes in 2016. While Ohio State has the emotional edge with revenge on their mind, looking forward to a colossal matchup with Michigan could ruin that edge.
If everything goes the way it should, this game should be a brutal brawl between two very physical teams. Ohio State will have to rely on its superior talent to get them through this season while Michigan State will assuredly bring their typical Mark Dantonio-bred grit. It will again be a “David vs. Goliath” match up talent-wise but will feel like equals clashing.
Ohio State could also possibly play spoiler while also setting themselves up for a sneaky Big Ten East title. IF the Buckeyes beat MSU and U of M, there is practically no way that the Buckeyes don’t get to Indianapolis, regardless of the result of U of M/MSU.
Also, expect a close clash, as these teams have had an average margin of victory of 5.8 since 2011.
The case for U of M/OSU
The arguments for “The Game” have already been displayed. It is the most famous rivalry in all of college sports.
The bloodlust hasn’t been quenched after years of war. Now there is even the possibility that Harbaugh and Meyer can bring in a new era of leading men bringing the Wolverines and Buckeyes to arms with each other. Four of the last five games have been decided by an average score of 6.5 points and the gap between the two programs has continued to close.
This is also the first year where Michigan appears to have a clear advantage over the Buckeyes and could reclaim this rivalry with a pretty one-sided game.
“The Game” admittedly has far more benefits for the Wolverines than the Buckeyes this year. Ohio State seems to be in a rebuilding year and it would not surprise if the Buckeyes had already been eliminated from Big Ten Title contention by the time this game rolls around. For the Wolverines, however, this could be the stepping stone to greatness for Harbaugh’s program. A road win against a school that has given folks in Ann Arbor fits would be major. It would also stifle talk of Meyer having Harbaugh’s number by erasing last year’s drubbing in Ann Arbor by the Buckeyes.
If Michigan is in a position to win the Big Ten East and position itself in the College Football Playoff, then “The Game” could be the turning point in Michigan’s program and bring all eyes of college football back to Ann Arbor for good.
Michigan vs. Michigan State
My reasoning for this selection really boils down to the stakes of the game at the point it is played.
While “The Game” will surely bring attention to itself as a huge rivalry game, too many things must come into place for it to get to the scale that Michigan vs. Michigan State this year. Also, Michigan-MSU is following up an iconic ending that will eat up headlines throughout the build-up to that game.
It is also the first true challenge the Wolverines will have that year and will also serve as MSU’s platform to again prove they will not wither into the background of the Big Ten.
To be honest, each of these games will probably have high stakes, great rewards, and even worse penalties. The benefit of being in such a dynamic group in college football is we as fans can witness three separate rivalry games each with their own identity, storylines, and relevance.
Despite Michigan vs. Michigan State being my pick, I hope each of these games will be relevant and exciting for all involved. Here’s to the Big Ten East’s Big Three!