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Surging Michigan arrives at a very familiar fork in the road

Michigan likes to do the "Big Brother" thing with Michigan State, relishes it, as if the annual in-state showdown that gets the Spartans frothing every October is just another conference game the flagship school should pretty much always win under normal circumstances. But nothing about the last three years at Michigan has been normal, by a long shot, least of all the back-to-back-to-back losses to a rival it would rather be able to take for granted. And whether or not Wolverine fans are willing to admit it, Saturday's trip to East Lansing is arguably the biggest game of the season, for reasons that have nothing — and everything — to do with in-state bragging rights.

As nemeses go, the Spartans aren't regional rivals at the moment as much as they are the outfit that's sent Michigan's season careening off the tracks two years in a row, and the signpost on the schedule where Brady Hoke's first season as head coach begins to either diverge or converge with Rich Rodriguez's last two.

Surging Michigan arrives at a very familiar fork in the roadBoth years, the Wolverines' trajectory was the same: A perfect September, highlighted by a dramatic, optimism-fueling win over Notre Dame in the final minute, followed by a high-scoring, too-close-for-comfort win over a resident bottom dweller in the Big Ten opener. Then Michigan State, and a rapid descent into purgatory.

In 2009, Michigan took a 4-0 start into East Lansing, lost in overtime, and went on to drop its last six conference games en route to a losing record. Last year, both teams brought perfect records into Ann Arbor, Michigan State used a convincing win as a springboard to a share of the Big Ten title and Michigan went on to drop four of its last six before kicking Rodriguez to the curb. Both years, the Spartans were there the moment the realization hit the Wolverines that nothing had really changed.

So much has changed at Michigan in 2011, it's tempting to think the broader "collapse" narrative has been painted over like a forgotten slogan on the locker room wall. The Wolverines are 6-0 for the first time since 2006. They're ranked in the top 10 of one of the mainstream polls for the first time since getting bounced from the rankings entirely after a season-opening loss to Appalachian State in 2007. They have a respectable, come-from-behind win on the road. The beleaguered defense has pulled a one-eighty under new coordinator Greg Mattison, rocketing from dead last in the Big Ten in total and scoring D in 2010 to the top ten nationally in points allowed, at just 13 per game. It even has a shutout, its first since blanking the worst Notre Dame team of all time four years ago.

If the situation really seems much different in October 2011 than it did in early October 2009 or 2010, though, that's still due at least as much to the retro "This Is Michigan" campaign Hoke has pushed over the last nine months. On the field, even the vastly improved defense has struggled against the best offenses it's faced, giving up 31 points on 513 total yards to Notre Dame (which also ceded a handful of crucial, largely unforced turnovers in an unbelievable loss) and 24 points on more than 300 yards in the first half alone last week at Northwestern. Even the mighty (and actually healthy!) Denard Robinson has continued to struggle as a passer, interspersing last week's brilliant, 337-yard, two-touchdown effort in Evanston with three loudly quacking interceptions. The potential seeds of another meltdown exist, if you're looking for them.

The fact that we are looking for them is testimony to just how sudden and dramatic the Wolverines' second-half fades have been, and how entrenched the tendency seems to be in the culture Hoke inherited. When he was hired in January, Hoke's mission was explicitly to roll back the Rodriguez era, to restore whatever it was that made Michigan feel like Michigan again. To that end, even Wolverine fans seemed to find the sudden proliferation of countdown clocks, macho posturing and various Buckeye-related eccentricities laying it on a little thick. But six weeks in, the Wolverines are right on schedule in the national polls, the Big Ten standings and the weekly stat sheets. If they clear the midseason hurdle Rodriguez's teams never could at Michigan State, they can claim one more phase of the mission accomplished.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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