It’s mostly a light week in Big Ten football, and Wisconsin and Ohio State will kick off Saturday night with no other competition from league games.
That’s perfect. You should watch as this matchup takes center stage. Savor it. This is the rarest of rivalries, one that is simultaneously waxing and waning before our eyes.
Though it’s the Big Ten opener for Ohio State and we haven't yet reached October, this game might just decide the Leaders Division race. That should come as no surprise, as these two teams have played several high-stakes showdowns in recent years.
“All my years that I've been here,” Wisconsin senior running back James White said, “this has been a great game. It has always come down to the wire."
The past three meetings have produced instant classics. The Badgers knocked off then-No. 1 Ohio State 31-18 at home in 2010. In 2011, Braxton Miller’s 40-yard touchdown pass to Devin Smith with 20 seconds left lifted the Buckeyes to a 33-29 win at the Horseshoe. Last season, Ohio State won 21-14 in overtime at Camp Randall Stadium.
While Ohio State has won five of the last six against Wisconsin, the Badgers have won or shared the last three Big Ten titles. They’ve also represented the Leaders Division in the first two Big Ten championship games, including last year when Ohio State was ineligible.
That both compete in the same division while Penn State remains on probation has added meaning to this game, which wasn’t always so competitive. The Buckeyes lead the all-time series 55-18-5 and beat Wisconsin every year between 1960 and 1980. The Badgers won twice (with one tie) between 1988 and 2000.
“I was here a long time ago, and it was not a rivalry,” said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who was a Buckeyes assistant from 1986-87. “You have to give credit to Wisconsin. I think it all started with coach [Barry] Alvarez, and then the following coaches have done a great job. They are one of, if not the best, programs in the Big Ten right now, and because of that, it’s become a very good rivalry.”
The rivalry intensified when Meyer arrived and then-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema made some disparaging comments about the new Ohio State boss. While both later insisted publicly they had patched up any potential rift, there was little doubt both badly wanted to beat the other last November. After Bielema left for Arkansas, ex-Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee was caught on tape calling Bielema “a thug.” The wife of Buckeyes assistant coach Mike Vrabel took a shot at Bielema and his wife on Twitter on Saturday after Arkansas lost to Rutgers -- ironically winning some favor with Wisconsin fans in the process.
The intrigue between the teams’ head coaches cooled considerably when the Badgers hired Gary Andersen, who served as Meyer’s defensive coordinator at Utah. When the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Doug Lesmerises asked Meyer this week if he missed Bielema, Meyer chuckled and said, “I’m good with Gary.”
"Not to get too much into things, but obviously Coach Andersen and Coach Meyer have a relationship in the past,” Wisconsin defensive tackle Beau Allen said. “There's a mutual respect between Coach Andersen and that staff over there.”
“That may be something that might be a little different this year, without getting too detailed or specific."
Friendship between coaches is not the only reason this rivalry may have already peaked. After this season, Ohio State and Wisconsin will play in separate divisions as the Big Ten expands and splits into East and West branches. The two teams are not scheduled to meet in 2014, 2015 or 2017, though they could still face each other in the conference title game.
That’s particularly a shame for the Badgers, because as their historic rivalry with Minnesota has become one-sided and Iowa went missing off the schedule for a few years, Ohio State has loomed as potentially their biggest game.
"You enjoy going up against great teams like Ohio State,” Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon said. “I mean, it's Ohio State. So it's kind of disappointing, but I'm sure if things go how we want, we'll probably see them again."
Things are a little different from the Buckeyes’ perspective. Wisconsin has become a rival because of division alignment and the Badgers’ contention for Big Ten titles. But Ohio State doesn’t view this game as the one it must win.
"When it comes to rivalries, no,” Buckeyes receiver Evan Spencer said. “I mean, just because The Team Up North, it's hard to place words on that one. Wisconsin is a big game, don't get me wrong. It's one of the biggest ones we have on the schedule.”
The schedule brings few guaranteed rematches between these two teams. So make sure to watch Saturday’s game. Savor it.
“We like playing these guys,” Allen said. “We've had great games, and that's why you play college football. You want to play great teams, you want to play great games, and you want to play great players. That's what we've had between the two of us."