Michigan is center of the football world this weekend

It’s a great time for football in the state of Michigan.

The state’s two flagship programs, Michigan and Michigan State, open their home seasons Saturday with as much combined optimism and national appeal as they’ve ever had. If the Detroit Lions were playing at home Sunday (sadly, they’re in San Diego) a quarter million people would have clicked through stadium turnstiles within a 90-mile radius in Michigan’s eastern half to watch a football game this weekend.

Attendance for the two college games is likely to creep close to 200,000 by the time No. 5 Michigan State kicks off against No. 7 Oregon, Spartan Stadium’s first top-10 matchup in a half century. Earlier in the day, Jim Harbaugh will make the most anticipated home coaching debut in state history when he leads the Wolverines out of the tunnel to take on Oregon State.

“He represents so much hope for these fans,” Michigan play-by-play broadcaster Jim Brandstatter said. “That part of the story all rides on his shoulders when he runs across the field and touches that banner.”

Brandstatter touched the banner himself as a Michigan offensive lineman in the late 1960s under head coach Bo Schembechler, but was born in East Lansing, giving him a unique perspective on the state’s two powers.

His father and older brother Art played for the Spartans. Brandstatter was a 16-year-old spectator in the stands in 1966, when Michigan State played Notre Dame to a 10-10 tie in a battle between the country’s two best teams. He said by Wednesday of that week it was impossible to have a conversation in East Lansing about anything but the game. This week’s buzz might be the loudest and most focused there has been since then.

The Wolverines completed a humdrum 6-4 season under Bump Elliott the day of Michigan State’s “Game of the Century.” Both programs have storied histories filled with exciting moments, but rarely have they intersected on the same weekend in terms of buzz worthiness, even though the stakes of Michigan's matchup is still a far cry from matching the on-field significance of Michigan State’s game this weekend.

Michigan State has dominated the in-state rivalry for the past seven years, rising to national prominence as Michigan slipped into mediocrity. Michigan State has played five teams ranked in the top 10 since 2013, but never on its home turf. Eventual national champion Ohio State was ranked No. 14 when it played in East Lansing last November.

"Big football games have occurred here in the past," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. "I guess this is one of the biggest ones."

There has never been a bigger coaching debut an hour east in Ann Arbor. In 1938, Michigan caused a stir when it opened the bank vault to hire Princeton’s Fritz Crisler, a proven winner with two national championships. A decade later, Crisler was replaced by Bennie Oosterbaan, a three-time All-American during his playing days with the Wolverines. Harbaugh, the former Big Ten player of the year, is both of them rolled together.

Harbaugh’s return and the Spartans’ playoff hopes make this a unique week for anyone with ties to the sport in Michigan.

Paul Verska is a Michigan High School Football Association Hall of Fame coach at De La Salle High School. A Detroit-area native, Verska has spent the majority of his life intertwined in one way or another with football in the Mitten. He was a senior captain at Central Michigan in 1966 when Michigan State was the epicenter of college football. Since then he has sent scores of kids off to college to play for one of the state schools.

“I don’t remember anything with this much hype,” Verska said when asked about this weekend. “I remember some other great games. I don’t remember the publicity and this many people talking about it. I can remember way back in the '60s they had the big game between Michigan State and Notre Dame. That was a huge game back in the day. That probably would’ve blown the Internet apart.”