When No. 6 Wisconsin faces No. 7 Penn State on Saturday, the Badgers will be playing in their fourth Big Ten championship game in the game’s brief six-year existence.
Wisconsin’s four appearances put the Badgers (10-2, 7-2) ahead of every other team in the conference. The Badgers and Michigan State are currently tied for the best record in the game at 2-1, so a win over the Nittany Lions (10-2, 8-1) on Saturday would give Wisconsin the most in Indianapolis.
Ohio State is 1-1 in the championship game and both Iowa and Nebraska are 0-1. This will be Penn State’s first appearance.
In the inaugural championship in 2011, Wisconsin and Michigan State squared off in a rematch of their mid-season matchup, which Michigan State won 37-31 on a Kirk Cousins last-second Hail Mary touchdown pass to Keith Nichol. Wisconsin represented the Leaders Division with a conference record of 6-2, while the Spartans represented the Legends Division finished their conference slate at 7-1. The Badgers avenged their mid-season loss to the Spartans, winning 42-39 to earn their spot in the Rose Bowl.
No play in the game proved bigger than 4th-and-6, with 4:06 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Russell Wilson dropped back to pass, scrambled and threw across the field to connect on a 36-yard pass to Jeff Duckworth for a first down. Montee Ball would then score his fourth touchdown of the game a play later, a seven-yard rush to put Wisconsin up for good.
Wilson was named MVP of the game, passing for 178 yards and three touchdowns. Ball rushed for 137 yards, three touchdowns and hauled in a receiving touchdown to go along with his seven receiving yards.
With the win, Wisconsin earned a trip to the Rose Bowl for a second straight season, following a loss to TCU to cap the 2010 season. Wisconsin would suffer the same fate, losing to Oregon, 45-38. This was their third loss of the season, all three by a touchdown or less.
Wisconsin would enter the 2012 championship game once more, but under different circumstances.
A year after winning the Leaders Division, Wisconsin would finish third in conference play in 2012, with a 4-4 record. However, due to sanctions bestowed upon division winner Ohio State and runner-up Penn State, Wisconsin found itself in the championship game for the second season in a row. This time around, the Badgers faced Nebraska, who entered the game off of a 7-1 conference slate to win the Legends Division.
Going into the game, most felt as though Wisconsin did not belong and had no chance against a Nebraska team that had beaten the Badgers earlier in the season, 30-27 in Lincoln.
Wisconsin’s running backs ran amok as the Badgers finished with 539 yards on the ground, led by Melvin Gordon, who ran for 216 yards, and a touchdown. Ball earned MVP honors and ran for 202 yards and three scores, and James White finished with 109 yards and four touchdowns. White even finished with Wisconsin’s only passing score of the game after completing a three-yard touchdown pass to Sam Arneson.
Bret Bielema would leave Wisconsin for Arkansas just days after Wisconsin’s shucking of the Huskers. Athletic director Barry Alvarez stepped in and coached the Badgers in a 20-14 loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl after Wisconsin became the first five-loss team to compete in Pasadena. Wisconsin also ended three consecutive seasons with losses in The Grandaddy of Them All.
In 2013, Michigan State defeated Ohio State 34-24 in the final matchup of Legends vs. Leaders. The Big Ten then moved to East and West divisions in 2014.
Wisconsin was back in Indy in 2014, representing the Big Ten West against eventual national champion Ohio State, who represented the Big Ten East.
The Buckeyes entered the game with their third-string quarterback under center. Cardale Jones would lead Ohio State past Wisconsin, 59-0. Jones finished the game with 257 passing yards, three touchdown passes and MVP honors, all in his first start. Gordon finished the game with only 76 yards in Wisconsin’s first shut-out loss since 1997.
Days following the 59-0 loss, Wisconsin suffered another loss: its head coach, when Andersen left to coach Oregon State, leaving Alvarez to roam the sidelines once more in Wisconsin’s 34-31 overtime Outback Bowl win over Auburn. Gordon returned to form in his final collegiate game, rushing for an Outback Bowl-record 251 yards with three touchdowns.
2015 saw another Big Ten championship game sans Wisconsin. Michigan State would net another championship win, 16-13 over Iowa.
Unlike Wisconsin’s past three appearances, the 2016 Big Ten championship game comes with an added incentive, as the Badgers could earn their first appearance in the College Football Playoff with a win over the Nittany Lions. Wisconsin currently sits at No. 6 in the playoff rankings, behind Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Washington and Michigan.
This coming weekend’s slate of games will determine who will be in the running for a national championship. The final four teams will be named on Sunday.
If Wisconsin wins and does not make it into the four-team playoff, it would likely find itself in the Rose Bowl for the fourth time since 2010.
Correction: Nebraska was 7-1 in conference play in 2012, not 7-2. The story has been updated, and we regret the error.