The Embittered Bowl: Wisconsin-Northwestern and life after Ohio State

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin and Northwestern just lost their biggest games of the season, and they face each other Saturday as the other's next biggest test. The winner may come down to who comes to grips with its mortality first.

If you aren't filled with unbridled hope to start the season, you may be doing sports wrong. Before a point is scored or a ball is snapped, you have every reason to hope that glaring weaknesses on paper won't be there in practice, or that your team's biggest strengths are strong enough to overcome what you suspect are crippling defects. You try to rationalize an undefeated season, as is your right and as you should, every damn season.

But no team that has played football for a reasonable number of years has ever gone undefeated every season. Seriously, look it up, stat dorks.

The first loss of the year brings a stunning crash of reality like so many paint cans tumbling from a flimsy scaffold. At some point you realize your team is mortal, or rather, isn't meant to be immortal and has to settle for being "great" at best. "Great" is fine, but it's not where you set your highest hopes.

Heading into the Ohio State game, I rationalized Wisconsin winning countless times in my head. Worse still, I imagined the aftermath, which was little more than a fun night out and a pep in my step but still something well worth looking forward to in my life of onrushing boredom. I didn't expect Wisconsin to win, but I wanted it badly enough to be genuinely shocked and mildly bitter at the end. Let's call it a watered-down form of Paris Syndrome. With a win, it would have been easy to say Wisconsin "may as well be undefeated" given what happened in Tempe. After the loss, the team felt definitively to 3-2.

A few Northwestern fans no doubt went through the same thing last week. The Wildcats' opportunity to be a team of extraordinary significance has come and gone, and now they must stake their spot along the spectrum of good-to-great. Like Wisconsin, Northwestern's loss to Ohio State felt unfair, almost unreal. Both teams can make flimsy arguments that they outplayed the Buckeyes -- flimsy, because Ohio State has had an unrivaled ability to make its own luck since Jim Tressel first turned the program into the unholy thing it resembles today -- and would have won if all bounces had been equal. Both teams know, for a fact, that they lost.

Heading into Saturday's game, Wisconsin seems like it should have the intangible advantage. The Badgers not only had two weeks to wrestle with their existential reckoning, but they are also bouncing up from a shorter fall. What was a big game for Wisconsin was potentially program-defining for Northwestern. If Northwestern needed to announce itself as a perennial power under Pat Fitzgerald, a win Saturday certainly would have done it. A win over Wisconsin would be nice for the Wildcats, but beating an (admittedly very good) unranked team won't put the team on the proverbial map.

Regardless, both teams stand before emotional hurdles. Both teams have a right to be bitter, and one will lose perhaps in part because of its inability to move on from Ohio State. Saturday could be a fascinating coaching study. If either Gary Andersen or Pat Fitzgerald made their teams believe they were destined to be the best -- that is, tapped their players' own reserves of unbridled hope for what could have been one unbelievable night -- it may be difficult to rally them around "better than most."

Being "great" should still be an easy sell. The difference between "great" and "good" is the difference between being remembered fondly and being remembered at all. Both require your favorite team to still give a shit somewhere along the line, just to varying degrees. Saturday's game won't make the final determination of what these teams are. Things get gray once perfection is off the table. The game will still be an important indicator, however.

At some point this season, ideally sooner than later, Wisconsin and Northwestern will have to prove that they have successfully re-calibrated after heartbreak. Fail to do so and they risk encountering a fate that no one -- no coach, player nor day dreamer -- should have to face: becoming forgettable altogether.

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