EAST LANSING, Mich. – Mark Dantonio isn’t easily excitable. The Michigan State coach isn’t into hyperbole. He won’t say something just to say it and see how people react.
But Dantonio is excited for this week’s game, his team’s Big Ten opener against West division contender Wisconsin on Saturday at Spartan Stadium. Kickoff, scheduled for noon, can’t get here soon enough for Dantonio.
“You should get excited for the opportunity,” said Dantonio. “I think the storylines around it, being the Big Ten opener, the history with Wisconsin, the fact that of where we’re at as a program right now, where they’re at, all points towards this being a very, very big game, probably bigger than last week (against Notre Dame). No doubt bigger than last week.”
And the game at Notre Dame was considered big.
Michigan State is 6-3 in Big Ten openers under Dantonio. The Spartans have begun the conference schedule 1-0 each of the last three seasons and five of the last six years. They’ve won three Big Ten titles, plus an additional division title that earned them a trip to the inaugural conference championship game in 2011, where they lost to Wisconsin.
These teams haven’t faced each other since 2012 when Michigan State won 16-13 in overtime. Six of the last seven games between the programs have been decided by one possession.
“I’m looking forward to smash-mouth football,” said junior linebacker Jon Reschke, who isn’t above a little hyperbole and cliché use. Sometimes, the clichés work because they’re true.
“It’s going to be a downhill game. They’re going to bring everything they’ve got and so are we,” Reschke continued. “It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a lot of hitting. That’s my type of football. That’s our type of football.”
So Michigan State is ready to go. Undoubtedly, the same can be said for Wisconsin. Similar quotes will be flowing out of Madison, Wisc.
The game is important. Everyone wants to win their opener, which sets the tone for the rest of the season. A loss forces a team to receive help elsewhere.
So why, from the Michigan State viewpoint, is this one a little more important than other openers?
The Big Ten East has three teams ranked among the top eight in this week’s AP Top 25 poll: Ohio State (No. 2), Michigan (No. 4) and Michigan State (No. 8). All three are expected to be in contention not just for the division title, but the Big Ten championship and a possible College Football Playoff berth.
All three have one common crossover opponent from the West: No. 11 Wisconsin. Those three games will happen in the next three weeks, so the schedule-maker did no favors for the Badgers. After the game on Saturday, Wisconsin plays the Wolverines Oct. 1 in Ann Arbor. Ohio State travels to Camp Randall Stadium in Madison on Oct. 8.
While Wisconsin will be battling with Iowa and Nebraska for the West title, it can have a profound effect on the East race.
Michigan State’s other crossover games will be at home against Northwestern (Oct. 15) and at Illinois (Nov. 5). Michigan’s two crossover games are Illinois (Oct. 22) and at Iowa (Nov. 12). Ohio State plays Northwestern (Oct. 29) and No. 20 Nebraska (Nov. 5) in Columbus on consecutive weekends.
For a division race expected to come down to three teams, no advantage is too small. Getting a win against Wisconsin in this season opener would be more important than others.
“We’re not looking at it like an East-West thing. It’s a Big Ten game, and Wisconsin is a good team,” said senior wide receiver Monty Madaris. “We can’t overlook them. We have to prepare for them just how we prepared for Notre Dame last week. It has to be the same way, or probably a little bit more of an edge. It’s a Big Ten game. If you lose one of those, it hurts you later on in the season.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo