We're right on the heels of both the Big Ten Media days and the start of fall camp – football is right around the corner. That means we'll begin the annual ritual of conference predictions, asking veterans which youngsters that have been the most impressive, and flipping through pictures of camp arrivals to see who has spent the most time in the weight room.
Based on an onslaught of season preview articles, though, you can likely add "ask Urban about the 'rivalry' with Michigan State" to the list. Despite winning The Game by a mere failed two-point conversion attempt, it is the Spartans, not the Wolverines, who seem to pose the greatest threat to the Buckeyes' College Football Playoff hopes. In his recent article comparing quarterbacks, Doug Lesmerises argues that, "At least for this season, the Buckeyes vs. Spartans should matter more on the field than Michigan's rivalry with either Ohio State or Michigan State."
This is likely for good reason. Apart from shocking the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship game, the Spartans return Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford on offense, a stout defensive line, and maybe more importantly, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.
While the Buckeyes may be the favorite to win the Big Ten this season, the Spartans undoubtedly have more momentum after wins over Ohio State and then Stanford in the Rose Bowl. It's been close against the Spartans for the last few years as well. Urban credited the 17-16 win over Michigan State during his rookie season as head coach for ultimately going undefeated.
As MLive and Cleveland.com note during their seven-part series on the budding rivalry, the competition lately has moved off of the field and into recruiting. MSU beat out Ohio State for Ohio running back L.J. Scott.
Dantonio and Narduzzi have done a heck of a job developing the program and laying the foundation for sustained success at Michigan State. I also don't doubt that November 8th matchup will be another close game. If the mark of a rivalry is a mix of close, hard-fought games and some degree of sustained success for both programs, then yes, it does look like the Buckeyes have two big rivals in That State Up North.
However, let's not forget that we've looked for the Buckeyes' "new rival" ever since Lloyd Carr left Michigan.
It's hard to remember, but between 2009 and 2010, it looked like Iowa might be that team in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes needed a game winning field goal to edge the Hawkeyes in 2009 and a Pryor miracle run on 4th-and-10 to win the 2010 contest with less than two minutes left. The Buckeyes escaped both thrillers by a total of just six points.
Before the Hawkeyes you might have seen a potential rival in Zook's sporadically proficient Illini. It's easy to forget, but that Rose Bowl-bound squad knocked off the then-undefeated Buckeyes near the end of the regular season.
But Wisconsin was the true "other rival" of the Tressel era. The Buckeyes escaped close matchups with the Badgers in 2007, 2008, and 2009, and then bludgeoned by John Clay and a bruising running game in 2010. It took an all-time highlight throw from Braxton to Devin Smith with 40 seconds left to beat the Badgers in 2011. Wisconsin was also one of the Buckeyes' many 2012 nail-biters, with a low scoring overtime win because of Carlos Hyde.
If recent history is any indication, a different Big Ten "other rival" will always emerge to challenge the Buckeyes for a year or two. While the Buckeyes have been consistently excellent, other Big Ten teams seem to periodically rise from mediocrity to make the season interesting. We then predict continued success for that rival program.
This is not to knock down the 2014 Spartans, who really do seem to have the markings of a playoff contender. What Dantonio has done for a traditionally average program is really a model for football program development. He started with winning games and now his recruiting is catching up to his winning. That is, Michigan State very well could establish itself as not just a sustained elite Big Ten team, but an annual contender on the national stage.
Instead, it's important to remember that, to some degree, the Buckeyes need another rival like the Spartans. It makes them that much better for the Buckeyes' ultimate goal – winning a national championship.