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Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Big Ten impact game: Legends Division

By Adam Rittenberg

Few would be shocked if the 2012 Legends Division comes down to Michigan State or Michigan. It makes sense, then, the division championship could be decided inside the Mitten State.

The division's impact game: Michigan State at Michigan, Oct. 20.

Rivalry games always carry a little extra spice. Sprinkle in the strong possibility that both Michigan and Michigan State could be competing for a division title and a trip to Indianapolis, and their clash at the Big House is even more appetizing. The teams' recent history only adds to what should be a huge showdown. Michigan State is a program on the rise, having won 22 games the past two seasons combined. Coach Mark Dantonio has stabilized and elevated the Spartans' program, and he has guided Michigan State to four consecutive wins against Michigan. Never one to downplay what the rivalry means to the green and white, Dantonio stoked the fire a bit this spring, telling Brian Bennett, "We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?"

After three subpar seasons, Michigan was a much more potent threat in 2011-12, going 11-2 with a Sugar Bowl victory. The Wolverines ended The Streak against Ohio State and continued to torment Notre Dame, but their recent slide against Michigan State stings. Michigan coach Brady Hoke recently said of the results, "It's been an ass-kicking. Just being honest with you. Pardon me about my language, but it's true."

Both teams could be in the preseason top 10, and they'll be the most popular picks to win the Big Ten this fall. Michigan State boasts a hard-hitting defense led by end William Gholston, linebacker Max Bullough and cornerback Johnny Adams. Michigan counters with a standout offensive backfield (quarterback Denard Robinson and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint) and a rejuvenated defense under Hoke. Last year's game in East Lansing had no shortage of flash points, during and after the final whistle. Needless to say, the matchup between Gholston and Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan figures to get a lot of attention leading up to Oct. 20.

Other Legends Division games will play into the title race. Nebraska certainly figures to be a factor, and its games against the Michigan schools -- home versus Michigan, at Michigan State -- loom large. But one game towers above the rest, and all eyes will be on Michigan Stadium when the Spartans come to town.