How Wisconsin has become Ohio State’s weirdest series and unlikely rival

Ohio State and Wisconsin are going to play for the Big Ten championship on Saturday night.

Looking at recent history, that makes a lot of sense.

Since the start of divisional play in 2011, the Buckeyes and Badgers have the most division titles with six and four, respectively, but we can go back farther than that.

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Since 1993, Ohio State has won or shared 11 Big Ten championships. The only team with more than half as many titles as the Buckeyes? Yep, it’s Wisconsin.

The Badgers have six conference championships in that span, including shared titles with OSU in ’93, ‘98 and 2010.

That’s just one reason this has become Ohio State’s weirdest series and most unlikely rival (small ‘r’ variety).

A person who stopped paying attention to college football in the early ‘90s and jumped back in now would be pretty confused to learn this is where we are. 

Wisconsin is a charter member of the Big Ten and was one of its early powerhouses, but there were a lot of lean years in between.

That includes a 30-year title drought between 1962 and ’93, when Barry Alvarez was just starting to get things rolling in Madison.

The Badgers could barely beat Ohio State at all during one particular era...

Woody Hayes only lost to Wisconsin once. 

Ohio State’s legendary coach stalked the sidelines from 1951-78, and he accounted for nearly half of the Buckeyes’ 58 wins over the Badgers.

Wisconsin’s only win against Ohio State in that span came in 1959, a 12-3 decision in Madison.

Hayes finished 25-1-2 agaisnt the Badgers.

Earle Bruce and Jim Tressel had their troubles against the Badgers, though. 

Bruce, who succeeded Hayes in 1979, had a winning record against Michigan, but he couldn’t regularly beat Wisconsin.

(That was a lot stranger in the ‘80s than it is now.)

After winning his first two games against the Badgers by a combined score of 80-0, Bruce lost the next two and four out of five. Bruce also lost his last one against Wisconsin to finish 4-5 against the Badgers.

Tressel dominated Michigan (9-1) but was only 4-4 against Wisconsin. He lost his first and last games against the Badgers, and his defending national championship team was upset in Madison in 2003.

Ohio State’s first great coach was a Wisconsin grad -- and OSU named a building after him. 

John W. Wilce played fullback for the Badgers in the first decade of the 20th century. He became the head coach at Ohio State in 1913, the same year the Buckeyes began play in the Big Ten (then known as the Western Conference).

The College Football Hall of Fame member led the Buckeyes to their first three Big Ten titles and their first Rose Bowl appearance. He finished with a record of 78-33-9 and has a health center on campus bears his name.

Wisconsin beat Ohio State in the Buckeyes’ first national championship season and was a springboard to their most recent. 

Paul Brown led the Buckeyes to their first Associated Press national championship in 1942 despite losing in Madison on Halloween.

That came to be known as “The Bad Water Game” because some members of Brown’s team were suffering from the effects of illness believed to have come from, you guessed it, bad water they drank on the train ride north.

Three years ago, Ohio State entered December uncertain about whether or not it would make the first College Football Playoff.

A completely unforeseen 59-0 win over the Badgers earned them the No. 4 seed, though, and the rest is history.

Ohio State beat Wisconsin the only time the Badgers have ever been ranked No. 1. 

Howard “Hopalong” Cassady caught a 45-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter to give the Buckeyes a 13-7 advantage on their way to a 23-14 upset in the 1952 game between these teams. That was the first and so far only time the Badgers have ever been ranked No. 1 in a major poll.

Two years later, Cassady’s 88-yard interception return for a touchdown keyed a 31-14 upset of No. 2 Wisconsin that was part of another national championship season for the Buckeyes.

Hayes called the play, which was the longest by a Buckeye in Ohio Stadium until Wayne grad’s Will Allen’s 100-yard interception return in 2003, the most spectacular in the stadium’s history.

Everything bad that happens to Ohio State seems to benefit the Badgers lately. 

Nothing matches Michigan week, but besides the Wolverines, Wisconsin has had the most to say about what kind of season Ohio State has had in the last 25 years.

Michigan State and Penn State have taken their turns as the Buckeyes’ No. 2 foil in the last 10 years, but that role seems to most often land with the Badgers.

They got to go to the Rose Bowl (with an assist from Michigan) in ’93 and again in ’98 (this time Nick Saban’s Michigan State was to blame) when they shared the conference title with OSU.

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In 2010, they ruined an Ohio State perfect season (before the NCAA could) and, you guessed it, got another trip to California at the expense of the Buckeyes.

They even benefited in 2012, getting the chance to smash Nebraska in the Big Ten title game because division champion Ohio State (and runner-up Penn State) was ineligible for postseason play.

Who would have seen all that coming?

I guess that’s what makes it interesting -- and probably means more surprises are in store Saturday night in Indianapolis.

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