You won't find two teams in more drastically different situations taking the same field this week than the duo clashing in Evanston.
As Northwestern has just two games to fend off a winless Big Ten campaign, visiting Michigan State has two more hurdles to polish off an undefeated Big Ten season and gain a trip to the conference championship game.
It's the position the Wildcats had hoped to be in when the season started.
After starting the season 4-0 with a strong-looking team, a highly ranked team, the Wildcats have inexplicably spiraled to a 4-6 season, dropping every contest in conference play. Meanwhile, the Spartans began the year on rocky ground, with its defense scoring twice as many touchdowns as its seemingly inept offense through the first two games.
Michigan State has since turned things around dramatically on the offensive side of the ball, with that unit almost caught up to a defense that's been the nation's best all season long. It's made Michigan State a juggernaut, particularly in the Big Ten, and not the type of opponent Northwestern wants to see in a week that will make or break its bowl chances.
"I think we've improved as a football team and really progressed throughout the entire year," Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. "It's pretty amazing how you sort of have gone from one spectrum to the next to the next now, where in September we were sort of trying to climb a ladder. There were some opinions basically that certain aspects of our football team weren't getting things done. Then October played a little better. Now November we need to play our best. I think that's where we're headed. We need to be able to continue to do that. That's the challenge for us because people become complacent. We need to guard against that and continue to handle success."
While Dantonio's "stay the course" mentality might be as cliche as it comes, there's a reason it's embraced, particularly by this coach. He knows how games and seasons can change in an instant, like they have for Northwestern this year, because Michigan State went through a similar campaign a year ago. Finishing 3-5 in the conference last season, the Spartans' five losses came by a combined 13 points. That includes a one-point loss to eventually undefeated Ohio State, a double-overtime defeat to Iowa and a three-point loss to Northwestern, in which Jeff Budzien's field goal with seven and a half minutes left proved the difference. This year, Northwestern has lost games on an unconverted fourth-and-1, a fourth-quarter pick-six, a last-second Hail Mary and both in one and three overtimes.
So, when looking at the fortunes of Pat Fitzgerald's team this season, Dantonio can relate.
"They've had some injuries that they've endured. They've had some very close games, overtime games, lost on the last play of the game. So tough things to deal with," Dantonio said. "The thing that you continue to be impressed about Northwestern is they're resilient, which I thought we did the same thing last year. They come to play every week. They're prepared. They're emotional. They're positive. Coaches are positive. They have an opportunity to win every football game. So you have to look at that aspect. I think the understanding is by our football team, I hope we're mature enough to understand this, is that every single game we've had with them has been a tough football game in the last six years. I don't expect anything different this week."
The "two-teams-going-in-different-directions" storyline has long been rendered not applicable. These two teams have already reached their respective and different destinations. But that idea still somewhat remains, as Michigan State is riding a six-game losing streak, Northwestern a six-game losing streak. Everything would seem to favor the healthy Spartans over the injury-depleted Wildcats. But because Northwestern's slide has been so confusing, so unexpected, is there a chance the team that was supposed to be in Michigan State's shoes suddenly makes an appearance, even if it's too little too late?
"They need two wins to go to a bowl game. They're in that kind of mode," Dantonio said. "Like I say, we got to handle success, handle adversity going up there. I know how they play. We've played them for six years. They've never taken a play off. They've never come and not been prepared. Never played without emotion. They've never not executed. Every game has been an extremely tough game for us. We've won some, we've lost a couple. That's what I expect. I expect the same thing. A very well coached football team, a lot of pride in who they are as people and what they do. That's not going to change."