No. 21 Michigan State plays at Minnesota on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, BTN/2.) The Spartans are ranked for the first time this season, fresh off a win at then-No. 7 Michigan.
"I think they've beaten them eight out of the last 10 times so I don't think you can be surprised at all," Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck told reporters this week. "I think it would almost be the other way. If Michigan beats Michigan State, you should be surprised in these times."
That’s not a dig. It’s a perfectly fair assessment of how that rivalry’s broken in the last decade. Michigan State was bad in 2016 and hadn’t proven anything in 2017 until that win at the Big House, but MSU pretty much always plays UM competitively. Even in last year’s 3-9 season, the Spartans only lost by nine to then-No. 2 Michigan.
Fleck’s being a little generous to Michigan State, and that’s normal pregame press conference opponent praise stuff. Michigan was a 12.5-point favorite and playing at home last week. One would expect the Wolverines to win that game most of the time.
But the game happened during a chaos-conducive downpour in Ann Arbor, and Michigan’s particularly young this year. The Wolverines lost a boatload of elite talent after last season, including almost their entire starting defense. They’d looked sluggish in a couple of their early-season wins, including in Week 1 against offensively deficient Florida.
Minnesota visits the Big House on Nov. 4. When that happens, this quote shouldn’t be significant bulletin-board material for Michigan.
Fleck, by the way, has a lot in common with a younger Jim Harbaugh.
Both are just right for college, after somewhat different stints as NFL coaches (Fleck didn’t exactly win the NFC, instead following Greg Schiano from Rutgers to the Buccaneers).
Both recruit ruthlessly. Fleck’s last three-year run at WMU led MAC recruiting. He then stirred controversy by bringing nine of WMU’s best commits to Minnesota. In under a month, his new staff went from only a handful of commits to nearly topping Wisconsin for the highest-rated class in the Big Ten West. It was the Gophers’ first in the Big Ten’s upper half since 2008.
Both are proven offensive coaches. Harbaugh’s won with everyone from backups and transfers to Andrew Luck, while Fleck signed and coached WMU’s first-ever top-10 pick, WR Corey Davis. WMU improved from No. 121 in yards per play in 2013 to No. 11 in 2015.
Both have won where they weren’t supposed to. WMU had never appeared in the AP Poll until 2016’s run to a No. 15 finish, and Harbaugh’s turned four straight slumping teams into double-digit winners, with Michigan the only team either’s coached that was anywhere near a sure thing.
Both started young, and it’s hard to imagine either ever acting old. Fleck was 32 when WMU hired him, FBS’ youngest head coach at the time. Harbaugh is 53 and one of the sport’s powers, but was only 41 when he first became a head coach, after years of volunteering as a consultant and recruiter for his father at Western Kentucky.
Both are unapologetically unique in a rigid business, and there’s the irony.
"I think comparisons steal your joy," Fleck tells me. "Just in society in general, when we’re always comparing ourselves to somebody else, we want a better car, we want a bigger house, we want more money, we want this. Comparisons, you’ll never outdo the one that’s always at the top. You know, you’re never gonna outdo that one. So for me, I don’t compare myself to anybody else."