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October 7, 2010

How Much Is At Stake?

If you're a Michigan fan living in state, you probably think this is a must-win game. Having lost two straight year to the Spartans, a third loss would signal an irrevocable shift in momentum. MSU would take its place as the state's dominant program, recruiting will follow, and Michigan will be plunged into a Dark Age.

You'd be wrong.

It is true that the Detroit media has seized with special fervor upon the perennial narrative that Michigan State football is "on the rise." It is also true that the same Detroit media has endlessly echoed old-guard criticisms of the Rich Rodriguez regime. The combination of the two themes have created a deafening roar, proclaiming impending Spartan dominance from every newspaper and radio talk show until the local fans believe it.

Mark Dantonio has shrewdly seized upon internal Michigan dissension and turned it into a story of Spartan ascent. You know the old-guard Michigan line: Rodriguez is a Southern coach. He doesn't understand or care about the Midwest. His teams are soft and rely on gimmicks. The spread won't work in the Big Ten. (Some fans have given this critique an ugly racial tinge - Rodriguez is recruiting a "certain kind of player," the kind who wears dreadlocks, and they don't belong at Michigan.)

Dantonio has positioned his team as the embodiment of the old Michigan virtues that have supposedly fallen by the wayside under Rodriguez: toughness, discipline, Midwestern values. That in actual fact Rodriguez has run a tight ship, and Dantonio a halfway house disguised as a football program, has not blunted the force of this message. Stories are more powerful than facts.

If the Spartans win, Dantonio's version of the story will be told, and told, and told, for 365 days. Nothing will dislodge it from the Detroit media.

But here's the thing. (And this is not easy to keep in mind if you're living in the state and subjected to this narrative every day.) In the national media, none of this matters. Right now, Michigan football is about a thousand times more important than Michigan State football. More important, the national story about Michigan has utterly changed since September 4.

Before the Connecticut game, the only thing fans knew about Michigan was that Rich Rodriguez was on the verge of getting fired. I live on the East Coast. I wear Michigan shirts or hats pretty often. I get a lot of comments. The only comment I heard for 18 months was, "So, are they going to fire their coach?"

You know what the story is now: Denard Robinson. The dreadlocked quarterback is the face of Michigan football. And he's probably the biggest story in college football. Michigan has an identity again, and it's a humble, hard-working sophomore with blazing speed, a zippy arm, a boatload of records and two game-winning touchdown drives.

As we speak, there are thousands and thousands of kids out there who have become Michigan fans because of Robinson. Five years from now and ten years from now, we'll be reading in their recruiting profiles when they commit to Michigan about how Shoelace made them dream of playing in Ann Arbor.

Now, I'm not saying beating MSU doesn't matter. And I'm not saying living in the state for the year following a Spartan win is fun. (I've been there. I know what MSU fans are like when they've won. They're intolerable.) What I'm saying is, the danger that losing to MSU would define Michigan's program as the second banana in-state, that it would set in motion a cycle of perception, recruiting, and MSU dominance, is gone. Don't confuse the emotional feeling of potentially losing to Michigan State with the strategic importance of such an event to the program.

Michigan has a national identity. What ESPN says about you matters a whole lot more than what the Detroit Free Press says about you - even in the state of Michigan. A total collapse could change that, but a loss to MSU won't.

That said, shutting up those so-and-so's would be a lot of fun, wouldn't it?


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