This article is part of our The Spread Offensive series.
Some games mean more than others. It's the truth. Coaches and managers alike will attempt to dissuade the casual fan of this notion. "The most important game is the next one," some coaches say. We all know that is just not the case. Rivalry games mean more than the average game. When Miami plays Florida State, when the New York Yankees play the Boston Red Sox, when Notre Dame clashes with USC. There's more than just a win or a loss on the line. It's about bragging rights. The term "Wide Right" lives in lore for Miami and Florida State fans alike. The names Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone are considered curse words in Boston. How about the "Bush Push" in the USC-Notre Dame rivalry? There's nothing better than getting the upper hand on your sworn enemy, and holding it over their head for a day, a month, a year, a lifetime. In college football, it's also about recruiting. Getting prospective high school players to see the fire, the passion, the pageantry, the history. There are so many factors that can sway a high school football player to come to your school, but having him stand on the sideline during a rivalry game in your home stadium and watching you beat your most bitter rival certainly can't hurt.
Even my mother was talking about the way Michigan lost Saturday's game. Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that Michigan lost the Paul Bunyan Trophy on a blocked/muffed punt returned for a touchdown with no time left on the clock. THE PUNTER HAS BEEN GETTING DEATH THREATS. Calm down, Ann Arbor.
What's a worse way to lose: the Iron Bowl Kick Six in 2013 or the Michigan Punt Fiasco of 2015? That's what immediately popped into my head following the debacle at the end of the Michigan-Michigan State game. For those uninformed, Alabama lost to Auburn in 2013 after attempting a game-winning field goal with no time left on the clock. The long field goal attempt was caught at the end line by Auburn's Chris Davis and returned 108 yards for the touchdown. Also with no time left on the clock.
Both incidents occurred in rivalry games. Both were excruciating ways to lose. Which was more improbable?
The more recent event always gets more publicity and the nod usually, but in this case, I believe the Kick Six was a more improbable, miraculous way to lose. Don't get me wrong, losing the way Michigan did this past Saturday is about as bad as it gets. We're choosing between a punch in the gut and a kick in the groin. Michigan State had a 0.2% chance of winning the game prior to the final play.
Still, Michigan had to know Michigan State would be coming on an all-out punt block. It was the only chance they had. Sure, a punt return could have also been tried, but from that position on the field, it was unlikely the return man was going to have a shot. The punt would have had to have been fair caught, or simply let go out of bounds or through the back of the end zone. No, Michigan had to know that Michigan State was coming. Hard.
Of course, the punter bobbling the ball helped the cause. Then he tried to throw the ball? Pitch it? Attempt a kick? Juke the entire Michigan State squad? Or the ball simply got dislodged? Whatever happened, obviously he would have been better served simply going down. Hindsight is 20/20. Michigan State would have only had a few seconds left anyway. The field goal would have been long. College kickers on the whole are terrible. Michigan State's placekicker, Michael Geiger, is 5-for-9 on the season. He has hit just one field goal of over 40 yards. All four of his misses came from inside 40 yards. The odds of Geiger making that field goal would not have been good.
Then there's the return. Jalen Watts-Jackson had to weave his way through a sea of bodies near the sideline – mostly his own teammates – and make sure he got to the end zone. He did. By the way, did you know he dislocated his hip in the celebration when all of his teammates jumped on top of him? Party responsibly, East Lansing.
There's a lot going on with that play. The Kick Six was more improbable in my opinion, though. We've seen punts muffed/blocked and returned for touchdowns. It does not happen frequently, and the timing of the play made the result all the more catastrophic for Michigan and euphoric for Michigan State. But that specific play happens from time to time in games.
A missed field goal returned 108 yards for a touchdown? I don't have the exact numbers, but I am certain that happens with less frequency than a blocked punt for touchdown. Let's start with the obvious. Missed field goals are common. But not every team would have had the wherewithal to put a player back on the end line just in case the kick was short. Then, Auburn cornerback/returner Chris Davis had a lot of ground to cover. Not only 108 yards vertically, but he worked his way all the way to the left sideline, the blocking held, he did not go out of bounds and he did not get tackled by any of the 11 Alabama players. Jalen Watts-Jackson had a convoy in front of him for Michigan State. Davis had more players to navigate through for Auburn, and probably ran almost 150 yards to make that play possible.
Alabama was 11-0 at the time. Auburn was 10-1. This was the last game of the regular season for both squads. A trip to the SEC Championship Game was on the line, and with that, BCS National Title hopes. Meanwhile, Michigan and Michigan State both still have to play Ohio State, along with a few more losable games. A lot can still happen this season for the Wolverines and the Spartans.
It is a painful loss for Michigan, one that will be remembered for years to come. It takes them out of the College Football Playoff hunt, they have now lost seven of the last eight games to in-state rival Michigan State, and you can be sure that Sparty will hold it over Michigan's head forever. Losing a rivalry game is perhaps the most disappointing result in college football, other than perhaps losing the National Championship. Losing in the way Michigan did this past Saturday hurts more than most losses to Michigan State in recent history. However, Alabama's loss to Auburn was more improbable, more miraculous, more devastating.
Certainly this opinion won't make Michigan fans feel any better about Saturday's result. Michigan fans will still tell you that Ohio State is the biggest rival, and not "little brother" Michigan State. No matter how it's rationalized, there are indeed worse ways to lose. Just ask Alabama.