For a second, rip the names off the front of the jerseys, play nice, and humor us. In the interest of this discussion, we’ll — oh, what the heck, let’s just call one team “Pinky” and the other “The Brain.”
Consider this: In the last seven meetings between the two programs, “Pinky” happened to come in with a combined winning percentage of .760; “The Brain,” a winning percentage of .822.
And this: Over the last seven meetings of the aforementioned “Pinky” and “The Brain,” six of the games involved at least one side being ranked in the top 25. In those seven meetings, both teams were ranked five times.
Oh, and this: In four of the showdowns, “Pinky” came in ranked among the top 15 twice; “The Brain” was stationed among the top 15 on five different occasions. In five of those games, at least one of the two programs had a top 10 ranking at stake.
Not Ohio State-Michigan.
Not Ohio State-Penn State.
Not Ohio State-Nebraska.
Not Ohio State-Anybody.
“Pinky”? Michigan State. “The Brain?” Wisconsin. And those seven games in question happened from 2007-2012, one of them for a Big Ten championship. Narf.
So where’s Corso? Where’s Kirk?
Where’s the circus?
The cameras? The hype? The national love?
“I could argue that this game deserves to have College GameDay be there,” ESPN analyst Anthony Becht said of the Big Ten’s marquee clash Saturday at Spartan Stadium — underrated Michigan State on one sideline, overlooked Wisconsin on the other. “From a standpoint of what that (College Football Playoff selection) committee is sitting down and watching, this game is as big of a game as any they could look at.”
I tell ya, no respect
Bigger, actually. The Spartans (2-0) go into the weekend ranked eighth by the Associated Press; the Badgers (3-0) 11th, and Saturday’s brouhaha is their first meeting since 2012. As a pair, they’ve appeared in more Big Ten championship games than any other conference school, with three berths each. (The Buckeyes are next on the list, with two.) They’ve also won more championship games than the rest of the field, with two titles apiece. (Ohio State is next, again, with one in 2014.)
Gang Green just handed favored Notre Dame its lunch last weekend in South Bend, Ind. The Badgers held off No. 17 (and favored) LSU at Lambeau Field in Green Bay back on Sept. 3. And yet Sparty, 45-11 since 2012, flies below the cognoscenti’s collective radar, and Bucky, 41-16 over the last five seasons, somehow glides along below that.
Meanwhile, Jim Harbaugh picks his nose, and Twitter spins like a cartoon Tasmanian Devil jacked on Red Bull.
Did Jim Harbaugh eat his own booger? Yes. https://t.co/RLDM3hkUJz
— 1460 KXnO (@1460kxno) September 14, 2016
What does Mark Dantonio have to do to get your attention? Moon a vicar?
“I think Michigan State was a brand name – a national name – for years, specifically when they welcomed African American athletes from the South in the times when they were not welcome (to play) in the South,” Big Ten analyst Gerry DiNardo offered. “So I think that Michigan State’s history, that they have been a national name at times in their history. And they became a little bit of a regional program (for a time), and (Spartans coach) Mark Dantonio brought them back to a national program.
“Wisconsin, you know, I see them more as a regional program, a program that could go national, if they wanted to, but I don’t know if that’s their desire … but you make a great point; neither of them gets the attention that Michigan and Ohio State get, and they’ve been in more (league title games).”
Welcome to East Lansing, home of the 2016 Rodney Dangerfield Bowl.
And you know what’s even more remarkable? That they’re kind of — well, fine with that. At least, the head coaches are. Dantonio relishes the underdog card, so much so that it’s become the proverbial can of spinach to be whipped out, Popeye-style, whenever the Spartans are picked (as usual) by the doyens from D.C. to Los Angeles to bite the dust against sexier names such as the Irish, Buckeyes or the big-brother Wolverines.
What’s also remarkable about this meeting — as with each of the seven before it — is how incestuous it is stylistically. And philosophically. From 2002-2006, Sparty had become Illinois North, captains of irrelevance, poster boys for underachievement. When Dantonio left Cincinnati to take over at Michigan State a decade ago, one of his models was the Badger beast that Barry Alvarez had built from damn near nothing in Madison, Wisc., some 16 years earlier. Win in the box. Out-tough the other guy. Wear’em down. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
“How they’re similar? The way they play the game,” DiNardo said. “And the way their head coaches approach their teams. They’re very level, emotionally … neither one of them smiles a whole lot on the sidelines. I think they’re similar in the way they go about their business, the way they conduct their business. They’re both great guys. Their hospitality — to say we get the same amount of hospitality at 14 schools would be inaccurate. But those two guys have treated us (well). Wisconsin in general, but (coach) Paul (Chryst) has been great. Mark started when we started. We parallel our history there. He’s just (great), and so is Paul. A lot of similarities that way, personality-wise, how first-class they are.”
‘We,’ not ‘me’
Sardonic. Dry. All business. It’s easier to get the Mona Lisa to crack a smile than Dantonio. Chryst doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Yet their peers respect them; their respective rosters are ready to run through walls for them. In Madison and East Lansing, it’s not so much about “me” as the “we,” a foundation built on the under-recruited and the hungry, where the only thing broader than the shoulders are the chips stacked on top of them.
“I think, No. 1, for me, from a recruiting standpoint, they’re not getting the top tier talent every single year,” Becht said. “Michigan, of late, is getting those four-, five-star players, and Ohio State continues to get these guys and funnel them in every year. Whereas with Wisconsin and Michigan State, they’re getting some, but they’re making a lot of three-star players better, they’re developing a lot of these players. Not to say the other schools aren’t.
“It’s kind of the old-fashioned way: Developing your talent when they come in, and you see something in a high school player that other schools don’t see. And you work them in your system … Michigan State, they lose a ton of good players and lose their quarterback and all of a sudden, they’re just as good they were last year. Wisconsin, it’s the same thing: They’re always good every week, always in contention. It’s just that they lack star power, sometimes.”
Although not every recruiting guru necessarily buys that last bit. From 2013 through 2016, Scout.com ranked the Spartans’ incoming classes as 24th-best in the nation, on average, and fourth-best in the Big Ten. Over that same stretch, Wisconsin’s classes averaged a No. 30 rank nationally and a No. 5 placement among league peers. Instead of harping on the whole ‘more-with-less’ narrative, why aren’t we focusing on the ‘more’ side of the equation?
“Wisconsin has passed (Iowa and Nebraska) in that they went to three Rose Bowls,” said Brandon Huffman, Scout’s national director for recruiting. “And they’ve had that turnover in the coaching ranks and have still done well.”
New coaches. New coordinators. The same mantra and message, night after night after night after night: Try to take over the world. If the Spartans and Badgers keep pounding hard enough, one of these days the world is going to finally catch on.