Wisconsin-Nebraska provides one of best new rivalries in college football

MADISON, Wis. -- The words "conference realignment" and "feel-good story" are generally considered mutually exclusive entities. In the mad dash to chase television dollars and bolster the status of athletic departments, decisions by schools to switch leagues have ruined historically significant and decades-long football rivalries that fans and teams will never fully recapture.

Texas-Texas A&M? Gone. Kansas-Missouri? Caput. Nebraska-Oklahoma and Pitt-West Virginia, once annual events, will now go more than a decade between meetings and only play sporadically, the stakes far less significant as out-of-conference foes. The list goes on.

There is no denying all the major-conference shuffling has altered the college sports landscape, and not always for the better when it comes to the on-field product. But, in at least one instance, those changes have brought about one of the best new rivalries in the sport, which has developed between two programs whose football stadiums are located 480 miles apart.

On Saturday, that rivalry will renew once again when No. 7 Nebraska (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) travels to face No. 11 Wisconsin (5-2, 2-2) at 7 p.m. ET Saturday in Camp Randall Stadium. Both teams harbor College Football Playoff aspirations, and the Big Ten West championship likely will run through one of the two schools.

Part of what makes a rivalry special is the importance of each regular-season meeting, the memories created by those games and the overall success of each program. So far, the series has checked every box. Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, the teams have met five times. In four of those games, at least one school was ranked in the Associated Press top 25. Saturday will mark the second meeting in that stretch with both teams ranked in the top 11.

Nebraska and Wisconsin share an obvious similarity in that each is the only FBS school in the state and therefore retains an especially high number of in-state products. Nebraska has 57 in-state players on its roster, while Wisconsin has 54. But the parallels run even deeper. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, the Badgers' Hall of Fame former coach, played linebacker at Nebraska under Bob Devaney from 1966-68. He even recorded an interception during Nebraska's 31-3 victory against Wisconsin in 1966.

When he took over as Wisconsin's coach in 1990, he borrowed many of the philosophies he learned while at Nebraska, including the famed walk-on program, drawing on talented in-state players with something to prove who became erasers for mistakes made in recruiting. Alvarez also understood a strong running game behind a powerful offensive line were keys to success, and he used that plan to win three Rose Bowls.

"We're kind of the same thing," Wisconsin safety Leo Musso said. "We're two blue-collar teams, and we're the only college teams in the state. Everybody loves Nebraska in Nebraska. Everybody loves Wisconsin in Wisconsin. It truly is becoming a great rivalry."

Even the current head coaches share several similarities. Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst's first coaching job came under Nebraska's Mike Riley with the San Antonio Riders of the World League of American Football in 1991. They reconnected during two stints at Oregon State. Chryst also served as Riley's tight ends coach when Riley led the San Diego Chargers from 1999-2001.

"I think you always have a natural rivalry when the games mean something, when there's something on the line," Chryst said. "I have a ton of respect for them and their program. I think the biggest thing is the games have been important, and they've been good games."

Nebraska's first Big Ten game took place during a 2011 prime-time showcase at Camp Randall Stadium with College GameDay in town. Both programs were top-10 teams, and Wisconsin ran away with a 48-17 victory. The Cornhuskers returned the favor a year later by coming from behind for a 30-27 win in Lincoln.

Wisconsin has won the past three games in the series, and each has featured an indelible moment. Wisconsin dominated Nebraska during a 70-31 Big Ten championship game victory in 2012, when three Badgers tailbacks rushed for at least 100 yards each.

Nebraska's addition to the Big Ten initially created the Legends and Leaders divisions. But the two programs were placed on opposite sides, with Nebraska in the Legends and Wisconsin in the Leaders. Thankfully, the Big Ten came to its senses after the addition of Rutgers and Maryland in 2014, separating into the East and West divisions -- and giving us the good fortune of a Wisconsin-Nebraska game each season. The teams began playing for the Freedom Trophy in 2014, although the trophy is hardly necessary to demonstrate the game's value.

In 2014, Badgers running back Melvin Gordon briefly owned the FBS single-game rushing record with 408 yards in three quarters of a 59-24 blowout victory, which proved to be the beginning of the end for Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini. And last year, in the first of potentially many Chryst-Riley matchups, Badgers kicker Rafael Gaglianone won the game on a 46-yard field goal with four seconds remaining.

Saturday has all the makings to add to the list of memorable games between the teams. And although Nebraska-Wisconsin can't match the historical significance of other games, the appeal will grow over time, particularly if the teams maintain national relevance.

"It's even more exciting for them being highly ranked and ourselves being highly ranked," Badgers linebacker Vince Biegel said. "A night game here at Camp Randall. The setting couldn't be more fitting for the situation."

Conference realignment left bitter feelings among many jilted college football fan bases. But at least something good has come from all that change -- a new-age rivalry with an old-school feel that is worth watching every year.