November has been staring the University of Wisconsin football team in the facemask all season, and it had nothing to do with the sudden outbreak of trophy games on UW’s late-season schedule.
The Badgers knew long ago that their neutral-site opener against LSU would be a difficult assignment. After that, however, their schedule looked manageable right up until, well ... today.
Now, it gets serious. Starting with UW’s game against Nebraska this afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium, the final three weeks of the regular season will determine everything in the Big Ten Conference’s new West Division — the destination of a growing list of traveling trophies, the division title and the championship game representative.
Bland so far, the conference season is heating up in the final month, perhaps by design. With fewer games against traditional rivals such as Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State following expansion and realignment, West Division schools such as UW were at least thrown one bone by the Big Ten. Taking a page from the NFL’s scheduling handbook, the conference created a November round-robin among the West’s top four teams — UW, Nebraska and Minnesota are 4-1 in the conference, Iowa is 3-2 — that figured to create meaningful games in the final weeks.
Whether the Big Ten did that on purpose or it happened by accident, the back-loaded schedule has set up a series of critical games in the division, a stretch that actually began last week when Minnesota routed Iowa.
The doubleheaders start next week, when UW plays at Iowa and Minnesota is at Nebraska. The following week, it will be Minnesota at UW and Nebraska at Iowa.
But the best and most important game of all likely will be today’s matchup between the 11th-ranked Cornhuskers and 22nd-ranked Badgers.
Those two appeared to have the most talent entering the season and have emerged as the division’s most consistent teams. As for what’s at stake, the winning team will gain the inside track for the division title, give its tailback (UW’s Melvin Gordon or Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah) a boost in the Heisman Trophy race and take possession of something called the Freedom Trophy, which will be on the line for the first time today.
The Badgers’ Nebraska-Iowa-Minnesota finish gave them something to look forward to, even after they were upset in their conference opener at Northwestern. When the Wildcats took a nose dive, the Badgers learned they could claim the division title by sweeping the final three games.
Since that loss, UW has blown out four mediocre-or-worse Big Ten opponents, including Purdue last week.
“As soon as that was over, it was said right in the locker room, ‘This is what we’ve been waiting for all season. This is what’s going to decide, ultimately, our fate,’ ” tight end Sam Arneson said. “We’re all really excited for this stretch.”
First things first, though. UW must beat a mirror-image Nebraska team that has lost only to 12th-ranked Michigan State. Like the Badgers, the Cornhuskers have a powerful defense, an exceptional rushing attack and a spotty throwing game. Indeed, the teams are so similar that even the frigid temperatures shouldn’t give either one an edge.
Now that the schools are in the same division, UW-Nebraska has the makings of a terrific rivalry. The programs figure to be battling for the division title in most years and have already played three memorable games since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011.
Those are the elements that will generate a rivalry, not the cart-before-the-horse Freedom Trophy that was unveiled this week against a backdrop of yawns. UW coach Gary Andersen made light of the trophy and his players barely knew about it.
The Nebraska players and coaches responded with a similar lack of enthusiasm, so don’t expect the trophy to become a rallying cry today. Or anytime soon, for that matter.
Despite UW’s long-standing rivalry with Minnesota, Paul Bunyan’s Axe didn’t become the iconic trophy it is today until then-coach and current UW athletic director Barry Alvarez made it a big deal in the early 1990s. And the Heartland Trophy, now 10 years old, hasn’t captured anyone’s fancy even though UW and Iowa are traditional rivals.
But who needs trophies? Since Minnesota plays eighth-ranked Ohio State today, it is entirely possible the UW-Nebraska winner will be alone in first place by the end of the day. More important, the winner would hold a tie-breaker edge over the loser, putting the latter in a deep hole.
At least UW has prepared itself for November.
“I think, since the Northwestern game, we’ve steadily built and gotten better every week,” Arneson said. “I think we’re playing our best football right now, and that’s a good thing because we’re into the tough part of our schedule and it’s going to be a great three-game stretch.”
UW hopes it’s a three-game stretch, anyway. A loss to the Cornhuskers could all but relegate the Badgers to playing for trophies the rest of November.