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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Looking back on the most-played rivalry in college football

The Badgers and Golden Gophers will meet this Saturday at Camp Randall to play for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Here’s a look into the history of competition between the two storied programs.

Wisconsin vs. Minnesota is a rivalry as old as time — well, as old as 1890. The two have faced off annually for 131 years, making their feud the most-played rivalry in Power Five football history.

Alternating between Madison and Minneapolis every year, the Badgers and Golden Gophers generally meet on Thanksgiving weekend in November, marking the final game of the regular season. The Gophers have had the axe since their 23-13 victory over the Badgers last year, but with the matchup coming to Madison this weekend, Wisconsin has a chance to steal it back at home. 

As of right now, the Badgers are — barely — winning the overall series with a record of 62 wins to 61 losses and eight tied games. But, the rivalry has proved no major consistency in recent years, and Saturday could easily be another toss up. 

Looking towards the earliest years of the border battle, Minnesota began as the dominant franchise. The Golden Gophers opened the series with a 63-0 victory in 1890 and led the overall rivalry from 1902-2017, at times by as many as 20 games. Wisconsin was only able to secure its first win after five years of the now-established rivalry, and then generally fell to Minnesota in most matchups.

To be fair, Minnesota was a dominant force in college football for a majority of the early 20th century, so Wisconsin shouldn’t feel too bad about their rocky start. The Gophers posted winning records from 1900-1919 and won three consecutive national championships under head coach Bernie Bierman in the ‘30s. The franchise went on to win three more championships following the Bierman era.. 

Wisconsin wasn’t as successful in this early period, which explains why the rivalry began lopsided. The Badgers won a conference title in 1912 but didn’t see another until 1952, despite a few strong finishes in scattered years. In the ‘50s, the Badgers reached their first Rose Bowl and boasted their first Heisman Trophy winner, fullback Alan Ameche. In this decade, Wisconsin was able to beat Minnesota six times and tie them three, marking their rise back to supremacy. 

It wasn’t until the ‘70s that Wisconsin really started to make up for their losses against Minnesota, securing the Axe 15 times in 20 years and racking up a few respectable six-game win streaks. Then came the era of Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin’s head coach from 1990-2005 who stabilized the program and returned the Badgers to national relevance. 

The turn of the century finally brought Badger dominance in an impactful way. From 2004-2017, the Badgers remained undefeated against the Golden Gophers through 14 straight meetings, solidifying the longest winning streak in the history of the rivalry. Wisconsin was ranked in the AP Top 25 for nine of those 14 years, consistently leaving Minnesota without an answer. 

The Golden Gophers finally snapped the streak in Camp Randall in 2018 with a score of 37-15, ending the Badgers’ joyride.  

While the Badgers have dominated in recent decades, it’s been anyone’s game in the past couple years. Minnesota is still able to make its presence known against Wisconsin, keeping the score close and pulling off an occasional upset. This year, the fight for the axe could go either way. 

Both the Badgers and Golden Gophers have had underwhelming seasons to say the least — each team will enter Saturday with a 4-4 record. Wisconsin had to work through coaching changes following the October firing of coach Paul Chryst, who spent seven full seasons as head coach. Interim Jim Leonhard is doing a good enough job with the team, but the Badgers have still fallen to several Big Ten competitors who were easy victories for them in past years.

Minnesota has had a fairly normal season for their standard of recent years, with no major upsets or surprises. In fact, The Badgers and Golden Gophers have had eerily similar performances this season, with a majority of wins and losses being to the same teams. For the first time in years, the two teams seem like they might be on a perfectly even playing field. 

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Rivalry games are always a toss-up, and the 132nd showdown looks like it won’t be an exception to the rule. This Saturday’s matchup at Camp Randall will either end up tieing the overall series or putting the Badgers ahead by two — only time can tell who will wield the axe. 

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