The most intimidating football program from the Midwest resides in East Lansing.
That's not this season or over the past few years; it's all the time - and it's Michigan State, which on the surface can match everything its peers can offer. Sparty has a world class university offering dozens of academic specialties on an impressive, fun campus with best-in-class facilities and a global, rabid fan base.
Beneath the surface it's got (pardon the expression, Spartans) blue-blood credentials half the Big Ten would kill to have. It does both football and basketball quite well, thank you. It's geographically situated close enough to Ohio and Indiana to make provincial hay with recruits who were not raised to hate Michigan State. That indoctrinated animus is reserved for someone else in those houses.
MSU nurtures football excellence by openly declining to fortify that mission with too many erudite obstacles. There's no manufactured presumptuousness about its academic mission for athletes, as there shouldn't be in The Year of our Multi-Billion Dollar Amateur Sport Lord, 2015. But East Lansing has one prodigious advantage the rest of its conference counterparts and regional peers do not have.
A permanent, enormous chip on its shoulder. Michigan State is the only football powerhouse in America that is fueled by a grudge.
It's the gift from Ann Arbor. A figurative Statue of Liberty that is both symbolic, empowering and has effectively shaped the Spartans' identity for decades. While Urban Meyer is forced to manufacture grievances and contrived disrespect to keep the defending champions interested, Michigan State has that hardwired into its DNA.
And Michigan willingly gave it these powers, bestows them today and will continue to provide them indefinitely. It's best summed up by two words that tumbled out of a smirking, punchable face eight years ago, on camera: Little Brother.
Michigan State is not Little Brother because of what Mike Hart said back in 2007. It's also not because of Mark Dantonio's prophetic response shortly thereafter. Sparty didn't shake this identity even after taking seven of the subsequent eight meetings with the Wolverines.
In the 100 games that followed Hart's proclamation, Michigan went 54-46. During that stretch Michigan State won the Big Ten and beat Georgia, TCU, Stanford and Baylor in bowl games. They're still Little Brother, and it is not a condescending descriptor (at least when a smirking, punchable Michigan Man's face isn't spilling it). It's a blessing.
Little Brother is an institutional advantage every coach in America would love to have. It's an inexhaustible fuel source for competition and the most efficacious antidote for the complacency that accompanies both knowing and hearing about how great you are. Michigan State will never cure itself of feeling inferior as long as Michigan exists.
You know what happens if you remove the culture of Little Brother from Michigan State? You get something resembling Illinois. Everything required to be great, but without any spice at all.
What Hart famously said was smug, arrogant, supercilious - and categorically true. His statement was also rendered down to a two-word battle cry that lacks critically-important context:
[To Hart] "You think of Michigan State as Little Brother?"
[Hart] "Yup. [laughs] That's what they think, so that's what I think."
Or in less elegant terms: I think you look fat in that dress because you think you look fat in that dress.
There's a list of true things in life that are best left unsaid. Michigan enthusiasts, for their part, are lousy with strategic silence. There is no institution in America that's worse at being best than Michigan is, and it conveniently resides a little more than an hour from East Lansing.
Michigan is MSU's arch-rival. Ohio State is Michigan's Arch-Rival. THAt SCREAMS "LITTLE BROTHER" LOUDER THAN MIKE HART EVER DID.
Big Brother is older, more prestigious, more highly-regarded and significantly wealthier than most universities and football programs. Michigan is also condescending toward absolutely everyone. Because of geography Michigan State always smells it first, most often and at its most pungent.
The Buckeyes get it from Michigan too, but the only component of identity that Michigan ever shaped for Ohio State was its vision of what greatness is supposed to look like. Michigan was what became the gold standard for the fledgling football program in Columbus. Buckeye players are rewarded with NCAA-exempted gifts in the form of Gold Pants charms for beating Michigan. Inferiority's dashing fraternal twin is Aspiration.
There's no inadequacy complex in Columbus, not even when Michigan enthusiasts - whether they hold college degrees or are simply busing your table at Applebee's - enthusiastically play Michigan's academics card. Buckeyes don't care.
Our mutual hatred is not based on a sibling rivalry that was stacked against us before we were born and will continue to remain that way long after we're gone. There's nothing familial between Ohio State and Michigan - the only real bloodline that exists is the steady stream of Ohioans that have made Michigan football what it is.
The Buckeyes aren't blameless in strengthening Michigan State's grudge, either - albeit not in direct, condescending fashion.
"Of course we've got to say Ohio (State's) the biggest (rivalry)," [Denard] Robinson said. "(Then) Notre Dame and (No. 3) Michigan State, our little brothers."
It's perhaps the greatest insult Michigan inflicts on Little Brother: Its pecking order among its rivalries. Michigan is everyone's rival. Notre Dame is everyone's rival as well. There aren't enough Dave Brandons, Ty Willinghams or Charlie Weises in the world to ever change that.
Michigan is Michigan State's arch-rival. But Michigan's arch-rival is Ohio State.
Forget about any advantages in prestige, academics or wealth; rivalry pecking order is the closing argument for defining Sparty as Little Brother. That speaks far louder than Hart or any other Michigan Man - with university credentials or simply busing tables - ever could.
Michigan State's arrival on the schedule means we've finally reached The Undercard. It took 10 damn games to get here.
The next landmine Ohio State will face is Tulsa, which won't arrive until next September between formidable challengers Bowling Green and Oklahoma - and after either four or five highly-ranked opponents that close out its 2015 campaign. Sick of cupcakes? Ohio State's strict diet doesn't end until next October.
Michigan State, which has only lost two conference games over the past three seasons begins that stretch. It's a 13-point underdog in the midst of what is easily its greatest run that anyone under the age of 55 can remember. That institutional chip on its shoulder is glowing, pulsing and easily repurposed for revenge against the defending champions on their Senior Day.
Sparty needs no help this Saturday. A full third of the team is from Ohio as are several of the coaches, including Dantonio. They even have a Tressel on staff. The system, organizational philosophy and framework have Ohio roots. Michigan State is led by an agitated Tressel clone who carries all of the animus and efficacy necessary to win rivalry games. As a Buckeye, Sparty is impossible not to admire.
Michigan State is incapable of losing by hubris, a condition that has affected both Big Brother and its Saturday opponent throughout their respective histories. Ohio State has five potential elimination game obstacles lined up between itself and repeating as champions, but it won't find a feistier, more talented or perpetually aggrieved adversary than the one it faces this weekend.
Aside from reuniting with an Alabama team fueled by revenge, this ruthless and efficacious combination of skill and bitterness makes Sparty scarier than anything else the Buckeyes will see this season.
And that mix is what makes Michigan State the most intimidating football program in the Midwest.