ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Rich Rodriguez has coached in just two Michigan-Michigan State games, losing them both, and yet he can sense the next matchup is different.
The 17th-ranked Spartans (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) and 18th-ranked Wolverines (5-0, 1-0) will play Saturday at the Big House without a loss between them for the first time since 1999 and with both in The Associated Press poll for the first time in seven years.
"It certainly adds interest — nationally," Rodriguez said. "The more you win, the more that is at stake."
When the maize and blue clash with the green and white in football, alumni and fans are always riveted, regardless of the records.
This time, they've got company.
People who don't care who wins can tune in to watch Michigan's sensational quarterback Denard Robinson or the return of Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio in his first game back after having a mild heart attack last month.
The Spartans have a shot to win three straight against college football's winningest team for the first time since 1965-67, when they were a national powerhouse and Michigan hadn't yet hired Bo Schembechler.
Michigan has won three-fourths of the last 40 matchups — thanks in large part to Schembechler's dominance in the rivalry — but it hasn't won since running back Mike Hart referred to Michigan State as a "little brother" in 2007.
The Spartans have earned the bragging rights since then and Michigan linebacker Obi Ezeh is tired of hearing about it from childhood friends in Grand Rapids.
"I get a lot of grief from those guys when I'm back home," Ezeh said.
Robinson might be able to help Ezeh and the rest of his teammates restore some pride in the state. After just five games, he is 95 yards away from rushing for 1,000 yards this season and 87 yards shy of the 2,000-yard mark.
If Robinson can keep up the pace he's set so far, he'll eclipse those milestones in the first quarter.
Michigan State has other plans.
All-American linebacker Greg Jones will likely have his eyes on Robinson all game, hoping his feet are fast enough to catch "Shoelace" before he gets loose.
When the Spartans have the ball, a trio of running backs will get handoffs that they hope will set up Kirk Cousins for play-action passes against a defense that has either looked confused or overmatched this season.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who lost to both teams this season, said Rodriguez and Dantonio have contrasting styles on both sides of the ball.
"It just shows the greatness of college football," Kelly said. "You've got two teams that philosophically couldn't be further from each other but they're both top-20 teams."
Dantonio is expected to watch the game from a coaching box high atop the renovated Big House, leading his team in person for the first time since he called for a fake field goal that beat the Fighting Irish in overtime on Sept. 18. He had surgery a few hours later and planned to return last week before a blood clot in his leg sent him back to the hospital.
Doctors cleared him to coach in Ann Arbor and it sounded like the patient was more than ready to resume his pressure-packed job.
"I'm not going to miss Michigan week," Dantonio vowed. "It's a very special rivalry for Michigan State University, one that so many Spartans hold dear."
When Dantonio was hired after the 2006 season by Michigan State, where he was an assistant under Nick Saban, he had clocks installed at its football facility that counted down the time left before the Michigan game. He was publicly peeved after Hart's verbal jab, wondering out loud how long the Spartans were going to "bow down" to their rival.
Jones credits Dantonio with instilling a new sense of confidence within the program.
"I think it had a tremendous effect," Jones said.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, bristles at the notion that he doesn't take the series as seriously or personally because he didn't have any ties to the state until Michigan hired him after the 2007 season.
"I don't count the days and count the hours" before the Michigan State game, he added, saying he chooses to do that for every game on the schedule.
Rodriguez insisted, though, that this game is bigger than most.
"I know they have talked about it quite a bit, but so do we," Rodriguez said. "It's no less important for us than it is for them."