I had fully written this column in my head by the end of the first quarter of Friday night’s game against Utah State. After 15 minutes of football in one of the most hyped football season for Wisconsin fans in recent memory, my mind had already been made up. What I came up with was less a fully-fledged piece than a string of incoherent expressions of anguish. Among some of these thoughts: The offensive line still isn’t up to UW standards; the running back trio was overrated; the receiving corps is still too inexperienced; the team as a whole is too undisciplined. It all culminated with one desperate conclusion: I really hope we’ll beat Middle Tennessee State in the Boca Raton Bowl this year.
So maybe I overreacted. Everything turned around in a hurry. It took Wisconsin almost 29 minutes to get on the scoreboard but when the Badgers finally broke through, Utah State showed little resistance. And so, I was left pondering the other games on this past weekend. Naturally, my focus turned to fellow Big Ten teams and their prospects. I found myself earnestly hoping that Rutgers and Purdue would pull off upsets against Washington and Louisville respectively (spoiler alert: neither of them did), but praying for a Michigan loss. Now anybody who knows me knows that rooting against the Wolverines is a personal policy of mine: This past week, for example, while giving a campus tour, a family from Detroit asked me about the pin on my lanyard that is emblazoned in bold letters: “BEAT MICHIGAN.” I simply explained that it was one of my life’s guiding principles.
But the non-conference Big Ten schedule does raise an interesting question: To what extent should Badger fans root for their conference cohorts for the good of the whole conference? My roommate and I recently had this debate: Is it worth the temporary pain of rooting for a rival if it means improving the Big Ten in the eyes of the nation? He, sick of SEC fans touting their conference as supreme, took the utilitarian view that, as much as it pains us, it would benefit Wisconsin fans to root for the hated Buckeyes, Gophers and Wolverines, at least for the first few games.
I, on the other hand, fell on the other side of the debate. I so enjoy seeing other Big Ten fan bases miserable that I would happily put aside my aversion to other teams if it meant getting that instant gratification. Take Week 2, for example: Oklahoma takes on Ohio State in a top-10 matchup. My instinct is to pull for the Sooners, since I’d certainly get much joy out of seeing the Buckeyes humbled on their home turf, and see the Badgers leapfrog them in various rankings. But at what point should Badger fans be rooting for the Buckeyes? Wisconsin is in position to vie for a playoff spot this season, a prospect I’m still not fully used to. In the past few years (excepting 2016), when UW ranked somewhere the 15-25 range with no legitimate chance of making the CFP, it was easy to root for the downfall of the Badgers’ rivals. This year, however, the image of the Big Ten could be a big determining factor. If UW wins the conference, Wisconsin will have to hope that the conference as a whole is seen as strong—and thus its championship will be worth more.
When conference play commences, this will of course be a moot point. At that time, Badger fans can root for the underdogs—Indiana, Purdue, Illinois and even Maryland (putatively massive victory in Austin this weekend notwithstanding)—all they want. But for the time being, as difficult as it may be, it’s time for fans to put away our “BEAT MICHIGAN” pins, muffle their anti-Buckeye rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and grudgingly root for their Big Ten brethren. Until September 30, when conference play opens. Then all bets are off.