Michigan State defeated Ohio State in last year’s Big Ten championship game, ending the Buckeyes’ 24-game winning streak.
This year, the teams won’t meet for the conference title, even though they remain the teams to beat.
The Buckeyes and Spartans share the lead in the East Division. They are 7-1 overall, 4-0 in league play. The winner of Saturday’s game at Michigan State is expected to face West Division leader Nebraska (8-1, 4-1) in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 6 in Indianapolis.
For Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, whose team still must face Michigan in their annual border rivalry, it begs the question: Does Michigan State trump the Buckeyes’ traditional rival Michigan, a struggling opponent whose coach (Brady Hoke) could be appearing in his last game when the teams play Nov. 29 in Columbus?
“I grew up in the 10-year war (Ohio State-Michigan), and there’s a saying around here: You can lose every game you play except for the team up north,” said Meyer, who is 31-3 with the Buckeyes, including 20-0 in regular-season Big Ten play.
“We all know that’s not true.”
What is true, at least according to Meyer, is that an Ohio State victory against Michigan in the rivalry game won’t make up for a loss to Michigan State.
“We have one rival here,” said Meyer, referring to Michigan, which is 4-5 overall and 2-3 in the East Division. “What’s happened in this situation is you have an excellent team (Michigan State). After watching them on film, they’re a great team. And they stand in the way of a Big Ten championship. They stood in the way last year, and we failed.
“Does that make them a rival? It makes them in the way of something that we all want. And that’s a Big Ten championship. To say this is a rivalry game, that would diminish the rivalry that’s been here for 100 years.”
During a week in which every word spoken by players and coaches is scrutinized as potential bulletin-board material, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, Ohio State’s defensive coordinator from 2001-2003, isn’t bothered by Meyer’s comments.
“Our (rivals) right now are Michigan and Notre Dame,” Dantonio said. “That’s how I see our rivals at Michigan State.”
Michigan State players view the Ohio State game differently from their coach.
“I think we treat it as a rivalry game because we have a lot of guys on our team from Ohio who take this personally,” said Michigan State junior quarterback Connor Cook, a native of suburban Cleveland who ranks second in the Big Ten in passing efficiency behind Ohio State freshman J.T. Barrett.
“Some guys before the game, they get up and want to talk to us. They said Ohio State never recruited them, and they want to prove themselves.
“We’ll see what goes down on Saturday, if there is any pushing or shoving or whatever.”
John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.