There are a few big pillars to the Big Ten’s foundation, and one of them is the strength of some of college football’s longest-standing and biggest rivalry games. Some may even call it the conference of trophy games.
Seemingly every game in the league has something on the line. Wisconsin has such games with Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska already.
But, one team that may be budding as a new rival is that of the Northwestern Wildcats.
It seems silly on the surface, given Wisconsin’s national stature and Northwestern’s inability to win division, let alone Big Ten championships since it last did in 1994. But, there is something more to this series than the perceived national stature of the programs.
Northwestern endured a 13-game losing streak, but broke that in 1985. Ever since then, the two teams have been on even footing on the field, splitting the next 26 matchups to the tune of an even 13-13 record.
But, just being even in the record books doesn’t answer the question of rivalry or not.
This is more of a question of how rivalries get started and how they are maintained. For Northwestern and Wisconsin, the game has become about two physical, tough-minded and academically like-minded schools going toe-to-toe on the gridiron.
According to Badger247, players on the UW side of things know exactly what they are in store for when the two sides meet.
“They’re tough and they’re physical,” senior tight end Troy Fumagalli said. “They try and match our intensity. They come out and hit you.
“They’re not afraid.”
Northwestern’s Justin Jackson echoed the same comments when asked about the series with the Badgers going in to the 2016 season, telling me that this game means more because they know and respect what the Badgers are about.
“I think it’s just the culture of our two teams,” Jackson said. “Tough, hard-nosed, scrappy. You know, not always looked at how we should be. So, every single time we come to play against each other we already know what type of game it is going to be. We already know we are going to have to fight to the last second.”
Both programs respect one another, but they also know that there is something more than just another game when they get together too.
“There is always a little extra in Northwestern week,” junior left tackle Michael Deiter said to Badger247. “It sort of does fell like a rivalry. It’s a Big Ten West game and every game there is super important.
Sometimes familiarity breeds rivalries. That certainly seems to be the case here.
But, before we go there for sure, we also need to remember that just a few years of like-minded football programs going at it doesn’t a rivalry really make.
We’ve asked this question in the past when the Badgers and Michigan State had their slugfests in the earlier part of this decade.
Now look at the state of the two programs? Wisconsin continues to battle for Big Ten championships and Michigan State is seemingly battling to maintain mediocrity just two seasons removed from a College Football Playoff berth.
As for the Badgers and Wildcats? Wisconsin is the Big Ten’s perennial West division leader, while Northwestern has hopes of contending and never has reached Indianapolis. So, why would the two even be considered rivals?
Well, when games are competitive, both teams win ones they shouldn’t and the wins define seasons, you can start to see why the players see these games on a heightened level.
Perhaps it will take Northwestern upending Wisconsin at the top of the West division heap to solidify this as a rivalry. But, for now, it is hard to argue that this isn’t the most competitive and challenging West division foe for the Badgers.
Will that once again be the case in Madison this weekend? After all, Northwestern snapped a 4-game losing streak in Madison during its last trip and strange things have happened in this series as of late.
It’s that stuff that makes competitive matchups in to true rivalries and the Big Ten would be better off with rivalries growing organically thanks to divisional play.