The Ohio State Buckeyes kick off their 2014-15 campaign Aug. 30 against Navy in Baltimore, but the season really does not begin until they travel to East Lansing, Mich. in early November.
Michigan State enters the new season as defending Big Ten champions and winners of the 100th Rose Bowl Game. They did it with dominant defense and timely offense - reminiscent of the 2002 Buckeyes who won the national championship over the heavily favored Miami Hurricanes. The Spartans allowed a minuscule 13.2 points-per-game in 2013, finishing No. 2 nationally in total defense.
It's no coincidence that the Spartans' head coach Mark Dantonio was the Buckeyes' defensive coordinator back in 2002. He has brought that same toughness and attitude to East Lansing, and now he is looking to overthrow Ohio State as the Big Ten's elite program.
He succeeded in 2013 - at least - defeating the Buckeyes 34-24 in the Big Ten Championship Game and snapping Ohio State's 24-game winning streak. The Spartans broke the hearts of Buckeye fans and became the first team to take advantage of the glaring defensive weaknesses Ohio State possessed.
Dantonio received a handsome pay raise in February, giving him a now six-year deal worth $3.64 million per year.
The 2014 Ohio State-Michigan State showdown has all the makings of a classic Big Ten clash, with both teams looking to build on a season that found them moments from a national championship berth. Despite a weak secondary and pour tackling, Ohio State still was a shoe in to play in Pasadena had they won the Big Ten title. An early season loss to Notre Dame was the only blemish on Michigan State's record as they finished No. 3 in the final BCS rankings.
Dantonio reiterated at his Big Ten Media Day press conference that the Spartans easily could have played for a national title.
"We could have played in (the national championship) game and played very well in that game," Dantonio said to the reporters in Chicago.
It's clear that the two programs are poised to be at the top of the conference for years to come and a rivalry seems to be brewing. Both teams will always see Michigan as the No. 1 team to beat every season, but both the Buckeyes and Spartans may have already passed the Wolverines in the Big Ten hierarchy.
At Big Ten Media Days, Mark Dantonio singled out Ohio State, along with Penn State and Michigan, as rivals to the program in the Big Ten East division. The Michigan rivalry is still very strong, (Dantonio does, he pointed out, still live *in* Michigan), but the Ohio State battle can continue to grow. Dantonio said that playing Ohio State at night will be good for the conference, while mentioning that his squad plays very well at night.
Ohio State is in the midst of an era of dominance over The Team Up North (as Woody Hayes would say). The Buckeyes have won 9-of-10 over the Wolverines, including a win vacated due to the infamous tattoo scandal. The Spartans have been beating up on their big brothers in recent years also, winning 5-of-6 over Michigan.
The fact is that the Ohio State-Michigan State winner could win the conference and be playing in the new College Football Playoffs for many years to come. This year's matchup is in primetime on Nov. 8, and both teams seem poised to be undefeated. The Buckeyes should be favored in every other Big Ten game they play, while Michigan State gets a staunch test early in Eugene, Ore. against the Ducks, a game that Dantonio said will be a great experience for Michigan State, win or lose.
If they survive, Sparty and its coach will have another opportunity to spoil an Ohio State dream season. The Spartans lost top talent on defense like Denicos Allen and Darquez Dennard to the NFL, but they return a stellar front four that will help stop the run.
It could be on the shoulders of Braxton Miller to lead the Buckeyes to victory on the road, which wouldn't be foreign to the senior quarterback. His game winning touchdown pass to Devin Smith beat the Spartans in East Lansing 17-16 en route to a perfect 2012 season.
Before we can truly call it a rivalry, the Spartans need to win more than one game in succession. Dantonio talked about how the program has moved from being the "hunted" to the "hunter". With at least one other big game hunter in the division, this rivalry can only continue to grow.