Chmura: Ohio State and MSU playing with plenty at stake

I sometimes wonder if there’s a team in all of football with more friendly rivalries than Michigan State. Although to be fair, it can be hard to define what qualifies as a rivalry in the first place. You can ask five different people who the Spartans’ rivals are, and you might get five different answers.

Obviously, the Spartans’ archrival is Michigan. Most people are also quick to mention Notre Dame. You might as well throw Penn State and Indiana into the mix too if, for no other reason, because these are the trophy games. Still, most of these matchups are not what you think about when you think of college football rivalries.

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The Notre Dame showdown was originally a stunt to improve MSU’s national reputation and the Penn State rivalry was introduced simply to celebrate the fact that MSU and PSU were the first two land-grant colleges. Realistically, two of these four rivalries were built from friendship rather than hatred. But somewhere lost in the middle is Ohio State, a place MSU head coach Mark Dantonio has ties to.

“[It’s] because of the people that I know [at Ohio State], really, as much as anything, the people I worked with and for,” said Dantonio on Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “I was a graduate assistant there. You know, sort of everything that really has been accomplished in my coaching career has sort of spun off of that… And then I went back as the defensive coordinator and won a championship.”

Not everyone would even call this game a rivalry, although it probably contains enough emotions to be one. But really, this “rivalry” was not established probably until 2013, when the Spartans spoiled the No. 2 Buckeyes’ national championship hopes en route to the program’s first Rose Bowl in decades. It was the Buckeyes’ first loss of the year and it came in Indianapolis.

Since that year, this game almost always held Big Ten championship or College Football Playoff implications. In 2014, both programs were knocking on the door for a playoff appearance. But this time the Buckeyes were victorious and advanced to win the national championship. The following the year was the exact same scenario, except the Spartans won and proceeded to make a playoff run.

Since then, the Buckeyes beat the Spartans twice. In last year’s case, it ended the Spartans’ shot at Indianapolis. But this year, the script is flipped. It is Michigan State with the opportunity to rip the Buckeyes’ Big Ten championship hopes to shreds and officially erase their names from playoff contention.

“In the past number of years, we’ve played basically for the championship in that game,” said Dantonio. “I would say in 2015 we did and certainly in 2013 that we did and it had a major impact on, you know, in 2014, that team that one was probably going to go to the playoffs and that’s what happened, they won the national championship…Ohio State is still the defending Big Ten champion, I believe, so you’ve got to beat the best.”

This game has turned into a rivalry and it only took a few years to do it. Two years ago, a CBS article even went as far as to say that it’s the best modern rivalry in all of football. But traditionally, it’s a whole different story. And just like the cases of Notre Dame and Penn State, MSU and OSU’s relationship was built upon friendship.

In 1946, the University of Chicago withdrew from the Big Ten Conference and multiple teams scrambled to fill the vacancy. The Big Ten had three options: Michigan State, Nebraska and Pittsburgh.

Of course, Michigan and Ohio State were the two most influential programs in the conference, so their opinions meant everything. Michigan opposed the Spartans, but Ohio State had other ideas. The two powerhouses duked it out and the rest is history. By 1949, Michigan State was the newest addition to the Big Ten.

Ohio State’s reasons for supporting Michigan State were probably driven by hatred toward Michigan than anything else. A vote for the Spartans was a vote against the Wolverines. Nevertheless, the Spartans appreciated the gesture and returned the favor in a similar manner. In 1974, the Michigan-Ohio State game ended in a 10-10 tie and the Big Ten athletic directors had to vote on which program would play in the Rose Bowl. Michigan State had a swing vote and you can guess who they chose.

Michigan always had a hand in Michigan State and Ohio State’s relationship, and this year’s matchup is a perfect reminder. If the Spartans defeat the Buckeyes this Saturday, the Wolverines all but punch their ticket to Indianapolis, regardless of what happens on Nov. 24. The Spartans have the power to put the Wolverines in Indianapolis for the first time in program history. They also have the power to place Michigan’s Big Ten Championship hopes in Columbus, where they have not won since 2000.

It’s amazing when you think about it. In 1949, Michigan State and Ohio State’s relationship was centered around the University of Michigan. 69 years later, it’s not that different. The ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ mentality still hasn’t disintegrated and Saturday’s game might actually affect U-M more than MSU. Though the Spartans and Buckeyes may not like each other, both know of another school they dislike even more.

And no matter what happens, that’s a common ground both teams will always have.