It’s difficult to underestimate the importance of this weekend’s matchup between Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Fresh off a victory against Purdue in their conference opener, the three-time defending Big Ten champions travel to The Horseshoe to take on the vaunted Buckeyes. It is a venue that the Badgers have not won at since 2004.
The Wisconsin football team has been to three straight Rose Bowls but has zero victories. At the risk of becoming the Buffalo Bills of college football, UW fans want that fourth appearance.
Because of the way the Big Ten is structured, the Badgers basically need to win this weekend’s game if that is to happen.
Ohio State and Wisconsin are both in the same poorly named division of the conference (I had to check which one—turns out they’re Leaders, not Legends). In order to reach the Big Ten Championship Game, a team must win its division. For Wisconsin and Ohio State, the mission is simple: Be the best Leader of all the Leaders, and earn the right to play for the Rose Bowl. Due to the ineligibility of Penn State and the mediocrity of Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue, the Badgers and Buckeyes are the only real threats to win the division this year.
Wisconsin’s remaining conference schedule is rather easy after this week. UW only has to play one currently ranked opponent—at home against Northwestern on October 12. If the Badgers were to pull off the upset against Ohio State, they would be in an enviable position for the rest of the season as division favorites.
However, a loss would put the hopes of a fourth consecutive Rose Bowl appearance in serious doubt. Ohio State would have a one-game lead over Wisconsin and also own the tiebreaker between the two teams. The Buckeyes do have two tough road games remaining—October 5 at Northwestern and November 30 at Michigan. And while it is reasonable to expect that Wisconsin will win the remainder of their conference games, it would be unlikely that UW could leapfrog Ohio State and win the division.
So, hey, no pressure, right? If there’s a saving grace for the Badgers this weekend, it’s that they are certainly not expected to win. College football pundits consider the Buckeyes a national championship contender. Being deemed so highly requires the expectation of an undefeated season.
But the Badgers are still a trendy upset pick this weekend. After all, Wisconsin lost to the Buckeyes in overtime last year at Camp Randall, and two years ago in Ohio, UW allowed a game-winning touchdown in the final minute.
It’s about time the Badgers got over the hump against their division rivals. As the team looks for a signature win under first-year head coach Gary Andersen, Wisconsin could not pick a better time to do so.