When the Michigan Wolverines rolled into Camp Randall Stadium on the morning of Sept. 21, 2019, the closest thing to a worry in Madison, Wis. was how the Badgers defense would defend against Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson.
80,245 fans flooded excitedly through Camp Randall’s gates for the 11:00 a.m. kickoff, ecstatic for the early-season matchup between the thirteenth-ranked Badgers and the eleventh-ranked Wolverines. The ever-festive student section, dressed in all white as requested, gradually filled throughout the first half as it always does. Those among the students brave enough to don Michigan’s blue and maize were playfully yet relentlessly taunted.
With 2:43 remaining in the opening quarter, Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor dashed 72 yards for his second score of the game, driving the Badger faithful further towards a state of absolute delirium.
Wisconsin safeties Reggie Pearson and Eric Burrell were both dealt targeting penalties and consequent ejections in the second half, but received standing ovations on their trots past the student section into the locker room.
After closing out a convincing 35-14 victory over the Wolverines, the Badgers had improved to 3-0 in the early stages of what ended up being a fairly successful 2019 season.
Fourteen months later, Wisconsin appears set to travel to Ann Arbor for a Saturday night showdown against Michigan, although under immeasurably different circumstances.
Due to a sizable COVID-19 outbreak within the Wisconsin locker room, along with the Big Ten season’s pandemic-delayed, late-October start, the Badgers have played just one game, a 45-7 beatdown of Illinois.
Jack Coan, Wisconsin’s quarterback in last year’s game, is sidelined with a foot injury. His replacement, Graham Mertz, as well as backup Chase Wolf, both fell victim to the COVID-19 outbreak and — while both asymptomatic — it remains to be seen whether they will be available on Saturday night.
As for Michigan, 2020 is off to a bleak start for their football team. Having lost two straight and fallen to 1-2, the Wolverines are once again falling short of their high expectations. When head coach Jim Harbaugh left the NFL in 2015 and joined the Michigan staff, the general sentiment was that he would make the Wolverines a powerhouse, a perennial contender in not only the Big Ten but the FBS as a whole.
Five years later, however, Harbaugh’s team is reeling and his future in Ann Arbor is as uncertain as ever. A former player at the University of Michigan, Harbaugh has been lauded for his personable nature and animated coaching style, but as his Wolverines fall in the standings, he similarly appears to be falling out of favor.
Football personnel aside, so many additional factors make this year’s Wisconsin/Michigan showdown a rather unexciting one, at least compared to what took place last September.
Of course, due to COVID-19, the game will be played in front of 107,601 empty seats. Helmet-on-helmet, ejection-worthy hits — unacceptable as they may be — won’t be met with cheers, but rather with echoes off the unoccupied plastic seats of Michigan Stadium.
Also, other, more pressing developments in the United States, the election in particular, drastically reduce the attention toward college football. In fact, the country was so absorbed in the election results that the events at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday night — thousands of fans carelessly storming the field in a surely virus-spreading celebration of the Fighting Irish victory — nearly went under the radar.
With COVID-19 cases rising steadily, college football clearly should not be continuing, but the major conferences have expressed no intentions of ending their seasons. That being said, the legitimacy of the 2020 season is highly questionable, especially considering that COVID-afflicted teams like Wisconsin will end up playing fewer games than their conference rivals.
Regardless of the circumstances, all signs point to the Badgers returning to action on Saturday against the rival Wolverines in what should be a quality game no matter who’s under center for Wisconsin.