The most played rivalry in major college football renews its vows Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, as the Wisconsin Badgers face the Minnesota Golden Gophers on the gridiron for the 122nd time in history. Minnesota leads the all-time series 59-54-8, but the Badgers have won the last eight meetings between the two. This streak is not an unprecedented run of success in this series, as the Gophers won nine straight from 1933 to 1941. Long streaks aside, this has historically been a fierce and hotly contested football rivalry between two flagship universities representing bordering states often considered to be both kindred spirits and friendly rivals.
But college football is a vastly different animal in 2012 than it was in 1890, and this once-idyllic rivalry is in turmoil. You can easily point to two major reasons for this. Firstly, the advent of the BCS era has changed what's important to college football fans. Watching your team do well in its rivalry games and win its conference is still nice, but the BCS system has conditioned fans to believe that what really matters is that their team should be in the national spotlight and compete for a mix of hype and national championships. The other reason is recent large-scale conference realignment, which has had numerous trickle-down effects such as putting an end to some long-standing rivalries, separating rivals into different divisions, and increasing the average distance between competitors in conferences.
It's no secret that Wisconsin wants to have a seat at the big boy BCS table of college football, but most of the teams already at this table have an equally strong number one rival sitting with them. Clearly, it hurts the Badgers' case to be accepted as a top football power when they have to quietly admit that their top rival is lowly Minnesota, one of the worst teams in college football in recent years. The emergence of Michigan State and Ohio State as 'quasi-rivals' for Wisconsin shows that the Minnesota rivalry currently doesn't make sense from a competitive standpoint. Even Gophers linebacker Mike Rallis acknowledged that it you can't call it a rivalry if one of the two teams never wins.
Conference realignment also did its part to weaken this rivalry, as the Big Ten added Nebraska and separated the football conference into two divisions, completely eschewing geography in the process. Wisconsin found itself in a division with mostly teams from the Eastern time zone, Minnesota and Iowa nowhere to be found. Fortunately, Minnesota was chosen as Wisconsin's protected cross-division rival so the annual rivalry would continue, but some of the Badger faithful wanted Iowa to be the protected rival instead, most played college football rivalry be damned. Still, with the two teams in different divisions, it's now too easy for Wisconsin fans to not really care what Minnesota does other than in the Border Battle game itself, and vice versa.
Wisconsin football and Minnesota football are worlds apart in the present, but these are still two teams with intertwined histories and destinies. And putting the spark back into this rivalry is certainly doable. With so many students from Minnesota attending Wisconsin and vice versa, an off-the-field rivalry between the two schools (some would call it a mutual dislike) is thriving. The Gophers may be able to remake themselves into a winning football team on the backs of head coach Jerry Kill and that fancy new on-campus stadium they built. And most importantly, one Saturday in the future, Minnesota will beat Wisconsin in football for the 60th time. They will sprint over to the Badgers' sideline and take Paul Bunyan's Axe as their own. Both teams will be better off for it.
Varsity magazine examines the Border Battle from both sides of the rivalry.
Tomorrow is one last chance for this group of Minnesota seniors to win the axe.
The Big Ten shined in the preseason USA Today top 25 basketball poll. Our Badgers check in at No. 21. Other B1G teams: Indiana at 1, Ohio State at 3, Michigan at 5, Michigan State at 14, and Minnesota receiving votes.
Wisconsin women's hockey plays their first game at LaBahn Arena tonight, but the homecoming is accompanied with an unusual set of circumstances.
A discussion of tomorrow's game from a Badgers beat writer and a Gophers beat writer. Neither see a way that Minnesota wins. I see a way: Wisconsin would have to play the entire game like they did that first half against Illinois.
That's all for today. Protect the axe. Don't go for two in unnecessary situations because Tim Brewster is long gone, though I would pay an inordinate amount of money to have him be the sideline reporter tomorrow. And most importantly, make fun of Gopher fans for the hooked on phonics fight song. LET'S GO RED.