Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
One of the top offseason storylines in the Big Ten pointed to a potential power shift in the Great Lake State.
Had Michigan State replaced its famous rival in Ann Arbor as the state's premier program?
The Spartans, after all, were coming off back-to-back postseason appearances. They had finally found their long-term answer in head coach Mark Dantonio. They had finally beat Michigan, in Ann Arbor no less, after six consecutive losses. They had made a strong move in local recruiting, landing loads of top prospects from Detroit and other fertile areas.
Michigan, meanwhile, looked like a mess. The stench of the worst season in team history lingered around Schembechler Hall. The Wolverines appeared to be starting over at quarterback again. The team endured more transfers and an embarrassing dismissal. Then came the allegations of NCAA rule violations and head coach Rich Rodriguez's legal issues. There was Rodriguez's emotional news conference and questions about locker-room friction.
A month later, you could say order has been restored.
Michigan is 4-0 and back in the Top 25. Michigan State is 1-3, falling short of expectations and driving its fans crazy.
The teams' fortunes have changed heading into Saturday's matchup at Spartan Stadium (Big Ten Network, noon ET).
“We’ve definitely been put in some great situations and great opportunities to win some ballgames," Michigan cornerback Donovan Warren said. "Some calls and some things have gone our way this year, and hopefully they just continue to go our way."
Warren directly benefited from one of those calls last Saturday, as officials awarded him a game-clinching interception against Indiana on a play that, at first glance, looked like a simultaneous possession call. Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis also took issue with the officiating in his team's 38-34 loss to Michigan on Sept. 12.
Karma is certainly back on Michigan's side, but the Wolverines are also making their own breaks. Quarterback Tate Forcier has been huge in clutch situations, and Michigan's other offensive weapons consistently make defenses pay dearly for mistakes.
"We’re happy with the progress we’re making," Rodriguez said. "We think we’re on track to get the program where we want. I don’t think we’re close to where we’re going to be, but we’re on the right path.”
The Spartans thought they were taking the same steps, and their leadership, from Dantonio on down, seems more stable than in past seasons. But the results have been all too familiar.
Poor discipline led to a loss against Central Michigan. Two crunch-time mistakes led to a loss at Notre Dame. Then, with a chance to start the Big Ten season strong against Wisconsin, the Spartans fell behind 21-7 and 38-17 before falling 38-30.
After the Wisconsin loss, Dantonio held a rare Sunday night practice.
"We needed to get our cleats back on and our helmets back on and be able to just get out there with each other," Dantonio said. "That’s why we practiced. We didn’t stay out there very long, didn’t do too much, but it was a great practice from an enthusiasm standpoint.
"We have to bring our energy to the game on Saturday. That’s everybody’s obligation in this program.”
Dantonio has never downplayed the importance of the Michigan game. After Mike Hart's infamous "little brother" comment in 2007, Dantonio fired back at the Wolverines star, saying, "Let's just remember, pride comes before the fall."
For a struggling Michigan State team, there's no better panacea than beating Michigan on Saturday.
"This game is personal," Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins told reporters Tuesday. "We need to win it, and we better win it."
Michigan feels the same way, especially after all the offseason chatter about a new pecking order in the state.
"We hear all that talk," Warren said. "That’s just fueling our fire this week in practice just for us to stay focused and put all that to rest -- that we are still Michigan and this is our state.”