Michigan Football: Michigan State, Not Ohio State, Will Be Toughest Game of 2014

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Michigan Football: Michigan State, Not Ohio State, Will Be Toughest Game of 2014
MLive.com/Mike Muholland

After Michigan running back Mike Hart famously referred to Michigan State as "little brother" in 2007, a stoic, unamused Mark Dantonio didn't hesitate to respond. 

"Just remember, pride comes before the fall," Dantonio said during a press conference, via YouTube. "I'm telling them: It's not over." 

Dantonio's words foreshadowed a dramatic shift in the rivalry. After the 2007 contest, Michigan had emerged victorious in six straight and eight out of 10 contests against the Spartans. 

Harry How/Getty Images

Since then, Michigan State has taken five of the last six.  

What has traditionally been a relatively innocuous rivalry has suddenly grown fangs, and the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy is now more contentious and personal than ever before. Constant trash talking is now the norm, and Michigan State in particular has played with new levels of ferocity and hunger in the series. 

The Spartans are fresh off of a spectacular 13-1 season that was capped by their first Rose Bowl victory in 26 years. They'll likely finish the season ranked third in the country, and on top of that they'll finish with the nation's top-ranked defense

While playing Ohio State in Columbus next year will be a daunting task, playing on the road at Michigan State will once again prove to be Michigan's toughest game. 

Due to a shakeup in the Big Ten next year with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, the Wolverines will be forced to play back-to-back road games in East Lansing. 

Michigan will have to return to the site of one of their ugliest losses in recent program history, when they rushed for an embarrassing minus-48 yards and generated just 168 yards of total offense in a 29-6 loss. 

Kevin W. Fowler/Lansing State Journal
Jerel Worthy's tattoo added fuel to the fire.

Over the last two contests, Michigan has scored just 18 points against its in-state rival and has struggled mightily to move the football. The Wolverines have amassed just 494 yards combined in these two games, and they've looked completely outmatched against the physical Spartan defense. 

The Wolverines have moved the ball much more effectively against Ohio State in their last two meetings, racking up 882 yards of total offense and scoring 62 combined points. While Michigan State's offense has continued to develop and will return the majority of its starters next year, it's Ohio State that will prove to be a tougher test for the Michigan defense. 

Although 1,000-yard rusher Carlos Hyde is set to graduate, the Big Ten's two-time Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year, Braxton Miller, has said he'll return for his senior season. Miller has been a nightmare for the Michigan defense, rushing for 153 yards and three touchdowns and passing for 133 more in their most recent meeting. 

But the Michigan offense simply hasn't proven that it can score points on Michigan State, and I see little reason to believe that this trend will end next year. 

Armed with a shiny new contract extension, Dantonio is in a position to lead the Spartans to even greater heights in 2014. They've surpassed Michigan in terms of national relevance, and they'll be the favorite to emerge as Big Ten champions yet again.

While "The Game" will continue to weigh heavier on the minds of Michigan fans, it's the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy that'll prove to be the toughest test for the Wolverines in 2014. 

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

 

Follow me on Twitter @TomLogan_BR

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