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Wisconsin, Michigan finally play again after unfortunate gap in schedule

Vince Biegel was recruited by Michigan in 2011 before he eventually signed with his home-state Wisconsin Badgers. So the senior linebacker is looking forward to this weekend's trip to the Big House.

"It's going to be fun for me," Biegel said. "I've been here for a while, and I've never had the opportunity to play Michigan."

If Biegel hadn't redshirted as a freshman, he never would have experienced a game against the Wolverines. This weekend's Top 10 showdown is, almost incredibly, the two teams' first meeting since 2010.

"That is really weird," said Michigan junior defensive end Chase Winovich, a Pennsylvania native. "The only real connection I have with Wisconsin is when [Badgers coach Paul Chryst] was at Pitt."

How did this happen? How did two of the Big Ten's most prominent programs go a half-decade without playing one another, operating almost as if they were in a different league entirely?

Blame expansion and division realignment. When Nebraska joined the conference in 2011, the Big Ten split into divisions for the first time. Wisconsin headed to the Leaders, while Michigan went to the Legends. No crossover games were scheduled between them.

Then Maryland and Rutgers came aboard in 2014, and the league ditched the unpopular Legends and Leaders format for the geographically-based East and West divisions. Like ships in the night, the Badgers and Wolverines once again swapped sides and went their separate ways.

Expansion and the division formats have created some other scheduling gaps. Both the Michigan-Illinois and Wisconsin-Michigan State series went dormant in 2012 until being resuscitated this season. Nebraska and Indiana will play this season for the first time since the Cornhuskers came into the league in 2011, while Maryland and Purdue meet for the first time as conference mates this weekend.

Still, none of those series feature as large of a gap or two upper-echelon programs like Wisconsin-Michigan. Did the Big Ten ever hear complaints from either school or fans about the Badgers and Wolverines missing each other?

"I don't have a recollection of that," said Big Ten associate commissioner Mark Rudner, who oversees the league's scheduling.

True, Michigan-Wisconsin is not a rivalry along the lines of Michigan-Ohio State or Wisconsin-Minnesota. There's no trophy on the line -- and in the Big Ten, there are trophy games everywhere.

Memorable games between the two have been few and far between. Bo Schembechler used to love beating up on the Badgers; the legendary Michigan coach went 18-1 vs. them in his career. The tables had turned by the last meeting in 2010. Wisconsin ran the ball 58 times for 357 yards and six touchdowns in a 48-28 victory, as then-offensive coordinator Chryst called for just one passing play in the second half.

Still, there have been some exciting contests between the two in recent history, like Michigan's 19-point comeback win in 2008 and the John Stocco draw play for Wisconsin's winning score in 2005. And the two teams could have reunited in the Big Ten championship game. The Badgers have gone there three times, but Michigan has yet to make it to Indianapolis. (The fact that Wisconsin has won three Big Ten titles since Michigan's last one in 2004 must make Schembechler furious somewhere in the afterlife.)

The bottom line is that the Big Ten should have never let these two teams go so long without playing. Expansion has been good in many ways -- especially in TV money and recruiting -- but absolutely nobody was clamoring for more Maryland and Rutgers on the schedule at the risk of separating legacy programs like Wisconsin and Michigan. To have two of its most recognizable teams become strangers was simply an oversight by the conference in all the realignment madness.

Thankfully, this is a problem that shouldn't crop up again soon. The Big Ten's new nine-game schedule includes three crossover games per year for each team, and the goal is to rotate opponents so that these gaps don't reoccur. That wasn't the overriding reason to move to nine games, but it was a factor.

"I know we wanted to mitigate against the infrequency of teams playing each other," Rudner said. "We saw us playing each other less, and it's important to play each other more."

So let's get used to more Wisconsin-Michigan games. The two teams are, thankfully, scheduled to play in each of the next four years.