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Michigan travels to East Lansing on Saturday to take on Michigan State, which will arguably be the biggest game in college football this year to date.
With both teams being undefeated and both teams being ranked inside the top 10, the ESPN College GameDay crew will be at Spartan Stadium for their weekly coverage of the game of the week.
The media had an opportunity on Friday morning to meet with Desmond Howard and Rece Davis from ESPN CollegeGameday to talk about the Wolverines and Spartans via Zoom. They both had plenty to say about this fascinating matchup.
As we all know, Desmond Howard had a great career wearing the winged helmet during his college days. Not only did Howard put up big stats and win the Heisman Trophy, but he also played in all of the rivalry games that the Wolverines had during his playing days. The former Michigan great says this is one of the more heated in-state rivalries in all of football.
“The rivalry is one of the more heated in-state rivalries in college football,” said Howard. “As a college football analyst, I’ve been able to see some of the great ones across the country like Clemson-South Carolina, Alabama-Auburn, USC- UCLA, and this one ranks up there with all of those. Both teams are undefeated, and I don’t know if anyone saw this coming before the season started. It’s exciting, it’s exciting for the state of Michigan and it’s also exciting for the Big Ten as a conference.”
The Wolverines and Spartans, alike, have rich traditions and they both are used to winning. Neither team has had this much success early in some time — which is why this game is such a big deal. Howard talks about both teams being undefeated, how it’s a good thing for the Big Ten and how it’s nice seeing the old blue bloods relevant once again.
“It’s really good, like I said, it’s good for the state of Michigan and really good for the Big Ten,” said Howard. “When I talk to my colleagues, it’s always great for college football – the landscape of college football when you have some of the blue bloods, some of the teams that are historically and traditionally relevant. So, I think it’s great for college football.”
Howard made a comment that not many people would have thought that both Michigan and Michigan State would have both been undefeated at this point in the season. He talked about how Mel Tucker went into the transfer portal — or free agency as Howard likes to call it — and then Howard talked about how big of a difference Mike Macdonald has made for the maize and blue.
“I thought Mike Macdonald, the new DC from Baltimore, I thought he was a really, really good hire by Coach Harbaugh,” said Howard. “I thought the defense was mainly the issue – I thought they would score enough points in certain games, but their defense would consistently let them down in the past few years. Talking to people familiar with Macdonald, what he brought to Ann Arbor, I thought he was a good hire to at least get the defense going in the right direction.”
Howard was asked which team has the edge in the game on Saturday. The college football analyst didn’t quite say which team holds an edge — he said both teams have contrasting styles of play — but he did say he thinks Michigan has an edge on the defensive side of the ball.
“I don’t know if there is an edge in a rivalry game like this,” said Howard. “You have two contrasting styles offensively; the Spartans have a lot of explosive players. I don’t know the last time they had that many dynamic players, if they have, when? I would love for you to tell me that because I haven’t seen it since I’ve been covering college football. Then you have Michigan who is all about the ground-and-pound – they have an identity. So, you have two contrasting identities and both of them work. I don’t think there is a big advantage for one team or the other when it comes to that. Now on defense, I think Michigan has the advantage defensively.”
Jim Harbaugh is 3-3 against Michigan State during his tenure at Michigan and he is looking to make it a winning record against his in-state rival come Saturday. Rece Davis was asked if he thought this was a huge game for the seventh-year coach of the Wolverines. Davis believes that this game is extremely important for Harbaugh, and if Michigan has changed into what it wants to be, then the Wolverines must win.
“I think it’s really important because – the record against rivals and top-10 opponents and until recently, as an underdog, all of those things have been the Achilles heel,” said Davis. “If Michigan is going to compete at the level it desires to, they have to rectify those things and you can’t run from it and say it was just an abirritation, bad luck, or their re-building. If you have a top 10 showdown against your in-state rival, maybe not their biggest rival, but a big rival, and you lose again to a coach in his second year – Michigan State is capable of winning the game. There are higher stakes than the rivalry and the direction of the program, but it’s important. To step away from that and to think there is a mitigating factor to keep it from being important is disingenuous. I think it’s huge – I’m not saying he has to win, or he gets fired or anything silly like that. I do think if Michigan has made the changes, it believes it has, culture, and the ability to compete at the highest level, then this is a game they need to win – the type of game they need to win consistently. I think one of the things they have done well this year is that there has been a couple of games they played this year that recent Michigan teams would have found ways to lose, but instead, they found a way to win. I think that’s a good characteristic for them, and something they will need Saturday against the Spartans.”
What kind of changes has been made for Michigan? Well, it starts with the head coach. Harbaugh appears to be a different man this year, he not only went out and basically hired a new staff, who is very young, but he appears to have more energy himself. Desmond Howard talked about this newfound coach on Friday.
“I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to the running backs (Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum), so when I was on campus talking to the running backs in the football building, I actually ran into Coach Harbaugh,” said Howard. “I believe the people that cover Michigan for a living or that has access to him can probably attest that he is a lot looser, probably more approachable to people, and when I spoke to him, we had a really good casual conversation. There is a noticeable difference with coach Harbaugh and people attribute that with the young coaching staff he brought in – they brought in new energy, and it trickles down to the players. There is definitely a noticeable difference in coach Harbaugh in how he has been in the past seasons to now.”
You can watch College GameDay on ESPN on Saturday at 9:00 a.m. EDT and follow that up at noon on Fox to watch the in-state showdown between Michigan and Michigan State.