CHICAGO – Michigan State fans should be giddy right now. Unless, of course, they're terrified.
On the cusp of the 2014 football season, both emotions are appropriate for the Spartans faithful. Their team currently is good enough to win the Big Ten and compete for the national title, and may possibly even start the season ranked in the top five. But their team historically is fragile enough that it could implode under the weight of very high, very heavy expectations.
"We've had success," coach Mark Dantonio said Monday at Big Ten media days. "We've gotten to a point where we've done some special things. What's on our agenda next, how do we handle that success, and that's really going to be one of the biggest things we'll have to deal with this year. I think we're a little bit more of the hunted. That's a good place to be, but it's also a very precarious place to be as well."
Sixty-five miles to the southeast of East Lansing, the moods in Ann Arbor are very different yet similarly conflicted.
Michigan fans should be morose. Unless, of course, they're cautiously optimistic.
The Wolverines have been thoroughly ground down by their two biggest rivals, Ohio State and Michigan State. Their combined record against the two is 2-10 over the past six years. And while both the Buckeyes and Spartans will start the season in the top 10 nationally, Michigan is using this season as a referendum on coach Brady Hoke after two straight years of declining returns.
Hoke's status at the winningest program in college football history is dicey enough that he's taken to talking a lot about academics. While that's certainly important, it's also a popular topic coaches tend to fall back on when they don't have big wins to brag about.
"You know, why do you coach?" Hoke said, getting existential with a question about whether he's under increased pressure this season. "I mean, why do you really coach? If we're doing everything we can for 115 guys, sons, on our roster … since we've been there, 69 of 69 seniors have graduated. That's important. Because football's only going to last so long. So the only pressure is every day preparing those guys for life after football."
So this has all the makings of a momentous season in the state of Michigan. The traditionally insecure Spartans, after a steady build under Dantonio, are seeking to break a near-50-year pattern of failing to perform when expectations are highest. The traditionally haughty Wolverines, with 250 more victories all-time, are seeking to crawl out from under the boot heel of the program they consider "Little Brother."
Those were the words Michigan running back Mike Hart used in 2007 in describing Michigan State – ancient history for today's players in the rivalry. But then former Wolverine Denard Robinson used the same phrase last September, and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint repeated it the week before the two teams played in October. (The Spartans won the game 29-6, Michigan's worst beating in the rivalry since 1967.)
If you want to tweak the sensitive Spartans, just mention those two words.
"Yeah, it pisses off the coaches, it pisses us off, it pisses me off as a player," quarterback Connor Cook said. "… It just isn't right. You don't say stuff like that to the media, you don't talk to people like that. But that's Michigan."
Cook then asked that the Michigan comment be stricken from the record, because he'd get in trouble with the coaching staff. But by mid-afternoon it was circulating on the Internet, proof that you can't retroactively go off the record in a public setting like this.
Dantonio is no fan of summer trash talk because he knows how slippery the slope is when you're on the mountaintop. Especially when you're Michigan State.
"Respectability can fly right out the window on us," he said. "I understand that."
It did in 2012, when Michigan State started the year ranked 13th and staggered to a 7-6 dud of a season. That continued an astounding pattern of folding when the Spartans are loved most, a pattern that predates Dantonio and has persisted across decades.
It was the sixth time since 1967 that Michigan State began the season ranked in the national top 15. In all six of those seasons – 2012, 1988, 1979, 1975, 1969 and 1967 – the Spartans were unranked by season's end.
After going 13-1 last year, upsetting Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game and upsetting Stanford in the Rose Bowl, there is a belief that this team is no longer the Same Old Spartans. But then the preseason Big Ten predictions come out and the Buckeyes are again picked as the favorite to win the league, and the old insecurities are reinforced.
"Every single year, we have a permanent chip (on the shoulder) because we never get the respect we deserve," Cook said. "Ohio State is always going to be picked, Michigan is always going to be picked. We can win the Big Ten championship, win the Rose Bowl and we're still going to have that chip."
For now, the chip should probably be on the shoulders of the Wolverines. They were 11-2 in Hoke's first year, and everyone assumed that the Michigan Man was exactly what the school needed to corrected the Rich Rodriguez "bad fit" failure. But since then the Wolverines have gone 8-5 and 7-6, and last year were frankly fortunate to beat pitiful Akron. Michigan's only win in the second half of the season was in triple overtime against a Northwestern team that finished 4-8, and a traditionally tough program was positively weak in the trenches.
Hoke responded by firing longtime offensive coordinator Al Borges and bringing in Doug Nussmeier from Alabama at a high price (a reported three-year deal worth $2.57 million). That change, plus the anticipated impact from highly recruited young players like defensive back Jabrill Peppers, has the Wolverines believing the resurgence is at hand.
But for now, they have to deal with questions about the rivals they haven't beaten very often.
"I'm not going to talk about Michigan State and Ohio State," said linebacker Jake Ryan. "I'm going to talk about [opening opponent] Appalachian State. Got any questions about them?"
Sorry, none. The rivalry games are the make-or-break games this season, for both Michigan and Michigan State.