By Ashley Dunkak

Until recently, the Michigan football program reigned as the unquestioned best in the state – always in the minds of its fans and mostly in the eyes of the rest of country as well.

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As it has ever since the arrival of head coach Mark Dantonio, though, Michigan State is once again threatening to upset that status quo.

The rivalry game inevitably ends up being a nasty one, with lots of talk before it, lots of jawing during it and even some extracurricular activity after the whistle blows. Traditionally for Michigan, defeating Michigan State was not so much an accomplishment as an expectation. Losing to the Spartans was humiliating.

That mindset has not changed for the Wolverines, but the Spartans have gotten a lot better.

In Dantonio’s first season Michigan State lost to Michigan, but then the Spartans beat the Wolverines in four straight games, the first time a Michigan State team had done so since 1959-1962 and only the third time in series history.

With a 12-10 win last year, though, the Wolverines reestablished themselves – at least temporarily.

Already, though, with Michigan State fielding one of the best defenses in the country and Michigan having gone down to the wire to put away several cupcake opponents, the Spartans are the favorite again.

Undoubtedly, that perception gives the Wolverines a little extra motivation. Ranked 23rd in the nation and “little brother” Michigan State right on its tail at 24th in the rankings, Michigan has something to prove.

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So, though, does Michigan State.

What is always a physical game – often excessively so – got out of hand the last time the teams played in East Lansing, a 28-14 beatdown by Michigan State. Former Spartan Will Gholston punched Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan in the face, and it turned out that Lewan had also pinned Gholston’s head to the ground after a play.

In his press conference earlier this week, Dantonio mentioned repeatedly the importance of the referees calling the game fairly and keeping control of it.

That likely will be easier said than done as Michigan fights tooth and nail to hold onto its reputation as the unquestioned best program in the state. Despite an all-time lead in the series of 68-32-5, the Wolverines’ unassailable authority has slowly faded since Dantonio took over. In his time at the helm, Michigan State is 4-2 against Michigan.

That period of success for the Spartans marked one of their best in the rivalry. Before defeating Michigan four straight years from 2008 to 2011, Michigan State had not taken even two consecutive games from the rival Wolverines since they won three straight in the mid-1960s.

The Spartans had threatened the natural order in the 1950s and 1960s. They took seven of 10 games from the Wolverines between 1950 to 1959 and tied an eighth game. From 1960 to 1969, Michigan State replicated that impressive feat. In the span of 20 years, the mighty Wolverines won just four of 20 contests against the rivals they had so often looked down on.

The next decade, Michigan returned to form, taking 12 of the next 13 games. It was the beginning of a run that would see the Spartans win just eight games against the Wolverines between 1970 and 2007.

Which team will emerge as dominant for the next set of years to come is up in the air, and the rivalry is perhaps hotter than ever.

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With both teams now presented with an opportunity to prove themselves on a national stage, take a lead in their division and earn bragging rights in the immediate vicinity, it should definitely be an interesting game.