When it comes to Big Ten rivalries, The Game will always stand alone.
The No. 3 Buckeyes and No. 13 Spartans meet in another momentous showdown Saturday in Columbus, with ESPN's "College GameDay" on hand to mark the significance. The winner stays alive for the Big Ten East Division title and a College Football Playoff spot. The loser licks its wounds and hopes for help.
Michigan State-Ohio State kind of crept up on all of us as a rivalry, albeit one with a lower-case 'r.' Yet these have been the twin titans of the conference the past two seasons, and they have measured themselves against one another.
It started in earnest when the Spartans spoiled the Buckeyes' national title hopes in the 2013 Big Ten title game. That propelled Michigan State to the Rose Bowl and a true breakthrough into the ranks of the elite.
Ohio State returned the favor last year, winning convincingly in East Lansing to jump right back in the national championship hunt, while closing the playoff door for Mark Dantonio's team.
Even in 2011 and 2012, the game carried major weight. Michigan State proved something to itself by dominating a weakened Ohio State in the Horseshoe in 2011. The Buckeyes gained their first big win under Urban Meyer in Spartan Stadium in 2012, hours after the team's famous "championship water" toast. Interestingly, and perhaps adding to the aura of the game, the supposed underdog (at least at kickoff, but certainly not in hindsight) has won each of the past four times.
This year's game could has been circled on fans' calendars for months and could have been one of the biggest Big Ten games in the past nine years if not for Michigan State's stunning loss at Nebraska. Throw in Connor Cook's shoulder injury (he says he'll play, but at what level?) have tarnished the appeal a bit. But there's still plenty on the line.
The rise of the Ohio State-Michigan State series coincided with the fade to irrelevance by Michigan. The Spartans and Buckeyes were playing for titles, while the Wolverines mostly played for pride. That looks like it is changing, which means the days of Michigan State-Ohio State serving as the league's marquee matchup could be ending.
This year's version of The Game will be one of the most anticipated in years, with the beginning of the Meyer vs. Jim Harbaugh battle. If the Buckeyes and Wolverines both win this week, their game in Ann Arbor will have title implications for both sides for the first time since 2007.
This is not to suggest that Michigan State is about to recede into the background. No, the window is not closing on Dantonio's team. Even if the Spartans lose on Saturday afternoon -- and they are an early 13-point underdog -- they will have a great chance to finish this season with at least 10 wins, making it five times in the past six years that they've achieved double-digit victories.
It's more about the ascendance of Michigan and the re-energizing of arguably the best rivalry in college sports. Even Michigan State-Michigan has more juice. The Maize and Blue could pretend not to care about the team they derisively call "Little Brother," but after the miracle Big House blocked punt touchdown, they will be raging for revenge next year.
True rivalries never really go away, even if conference realignment tries to kill some. But a league's headliner matchup can change. In the SEC, for example, Auburn-Alabama is still the top rivalry, but Alabama-LSU has been the game of the year for a while now. Maybe next season it will be Alabama-Ole Miss.
Ohio State-Michigan looks like it will reclaim its crown as biggest Big Ten game of the season. There's one way that Michigan State can change that -- by pulling off the upset on Saturday afternoon and making sure that the Buckeyes still measure themselves against the "other" team from Michigan first and foremost.