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Wisconsin vs. Minnesota: Badgers-Gophers rivalry needs reinvigoration

Eleven years of one-sided affairs have taken the emotion out of the Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe

For Wisconsin football fans, the annual matchup with Minnesota could not come at a better time, a chance to take out frustration after last week’s baffling loss to Northwestern.

It’s the 125th meeting of college football’s most-played rivalry, a showdown for Paul Bunyan’s Axe and border bragging rights. This game should be wrought with excitement.

But it isn’t, and it hasn’t been for quite some time.

We all know the basics behind this rusty rivalry. The Badgers have won 11 match-ups in a row by an average margin of victory of 15.6 points. This recent disparity has led many to expect a Wisconsin win year after year.

The lopsided nature isn’t an indictment of Minnesota. It’s simply acknowledgement of the ebbs and flows of any long-time rivalry. Clashes between the NBA’s Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers don’t have the same mystique as they once did, but there’s no denying those games still generate significant fan and media interest.

Despite the Badgers’ turnaround under Barry Alvarez, the Golden Gophers still hold a 59-57-8 all-time advantage and experienced a period of dominance in the 1930s and 1940s. From a historical perspective, it seems we are merely entrenched in a period of Wisconsin’s own supremacy.

Of course, with the Badgers’ recent coaching and recruiting turmoil and the Gophers’ gradual resurgence, the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe may soon become a back-and-forth affair once again.

Consider that from 1967 to 1993, a period bookended by Minnesota’s most recent Big Ten championship on the early side and Wisconsin’s first conference title under Alvarez on the latter, the Gophers held a slim 15-12 advantage during an era where both programs were stuck near the bottom of the Big Ten. Of those 27 games, 15 were decided by one possession.

The Badgers have arguably already slipped out of the Big Ten’s upper echelon, a place they convincingly found themselves at the tail end of Bret Bielema’s tenure. If such an argument holds true, Wisconsin and Minnesota will likely spend the next few seasons jockeying in the conference’s second tier while winning somewhere between seven and nine games.

Just as Wisconsin’s recent control of the Axe wasn’t a condemnation of Minnesota’s program, a statement that the Badgers may have returned to college football mediocrity doesn't spell doom for their program, either. It’s a reflection on how tough it is to maintain a winner in the Big Ten when you aren’t a conference blue blood like Ohio State or Michigan.

While Wisconsin’s recent winning tradition and booming athletic revenues give it advantages over Minnesota going forward, the Gophers have a foundation to emerge from the doldrums. The athletic department turned a profit in 2013 for the first time since 2008, and the football team boasts a beautiful home facility with recently opened TCF Bank Stadium.

Perhaps the seeds of competitive balance were laid last year. In the season finale with the Big Ten West title on the line, No. 14 Wisconsin defeated No. 22 Minnesota by a score of 34-24. It was only the fifth time ever in which both teams were ranked in the AP poll, and first such occasion since 2005, otherwise remembered as the blocked punt game.

In pre-game highlight montages Saturday, Ben Strickland’s end zone recovery of that blocked punt to give Wisconsin a stunning final-minute win a decade ago will surely be replayed. It was an iconic moment in the rivalry and came at a time when both programs were solid teams.

Not every Axe game can be as exciting as that one, and different levels of success ensure there will always be a few blowouts interspersed throughout the series. Every so often, however, both teams’ fortunes will align in a true showdown, like the 2004 ALCS between the Yankees and Red Sox or the 2010 NFC Championship between the Packers and Bears. Every great rivalry goes through this.

The last such classic between the Gophers and Badgers? More than 50 years ago, No. 3 Wisconsin took down No. 5 Minnesota for a controversial 14-9 win in 1962. The victory sent the Badgers to the Rose Bowl, a 42-37 loss to USC that is often cited as one of the most thrilling bowl games of all-time.

With the modern-day Badgers trying to finish the regular season at a respectable 9-3 and the Gophers just hoping to become bowl eligible Saturday, a No. 3 vs. No. 5 matchup certainly isn’t on the horizon anytime soon.

But eventually a nail-biter between two good teams battling for Paul Bunyan’s Axe will take place again. It would be exactly what this rivalry needs.