It’s more than a rivalry. It’s for bragging rights for a whole calendar year.
ESPN’s College GameDay finally gives its nod to the Twin Cities, as the crew will head up to the North Star State for the first time to feature a program that has been relatively quiet until recently. When many think of Axe Week, most college football fans think of the dominance that the Wisconsin Badgers have had in this rivalry – where for 14 years, the Axe has stayed down in Madison. Most folks believed a permanent shrine and trophy case was set to be built around the University of Wisconsin – Madison, since the rivalry was completely one sided.
Enter in P.J. Fleck and the rejuvenated Minnesota Golden Gophers (10-1). Predicted to finish the Big Ten West by many media outlets as low as 6th, the Maroon & Gold were set to prove their doubters wrong. Granted, their start to this season wasn’t pretty, as an early season test at home against FCS-powerhouse South Dakota State, on the road at Fresno State, and even at home on the ropes against Georgia Southern proved to be challenging to the young but talented Gophers team. But after their non-conference schedule, the Gophers have been impressive in Big Ten play, including a huge program-defining win over maybe an overrated Penn State squad. Following a setback at Kinnick Stadium against the Hawkeyes, the Gophers made easy work of the Northwestern Wildcats to set up the biggest granddaddy of them all; the Big Ten West Championship.
Wisconsin (9-2) comes in as a 2.5 point favorite and features a dominant offensive line, led by likely NFL-first round pick Tyler Biadasz at center. This line helps pave the way for star running back and Heisman hopeful Jonathan Taylor. The Badgers early on has shown their dominance, including four shutouts respectively over South Florida, Central Michigan, Kent State, and Michigan State. A trap game down in Champaign knocked the Badgers off of their rails to a possible College Football Playoff, then they met likely the best complete team in College Football, the Ohio State Buckeyes. Two losses haven’t defined the season, Wisconsin continues to be a program motivated by continuing to improve as a unit each week. Paul Chryst will have his team ready to go on Saturday, especially to hopefully avenge last year’s disappointment at Camp Randall, where Minnesota finally won the Axe for the first time in nearly 15 years.
What will be the biggest determinant of this game? Time of possession. If Wisconsin can play Wisconsin Badger football, which means running the ball and being patient on offense, they can easily keep the Gophers powerful and high octane offense off of the field. Also factor in the weather, as Saturday will bring a possibility of 3-5 inches of snow for Minneapolis, and if warm enough, sloppy weather. In a sold-out TCF Bank Stadium – the elements for a true Big Ten contest will be perfect to see who wins the battle in the trenches. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter what the Gophers do on offense, if they can’t stop Jonathan Taylor and the Badgers running game, whatever they do on offense will not matter. Special teams – and especially field position is also going to be key. Probably will see some missed kicks for extra points or field goals – it’s just not going to be a good day for kicking the ball.
I will be at the game – and at College GameDay. If you’re interested in following along for the Battle of Paul Bunyan’s Axe, give me a follow on twitter at @WGLarson. There will be a follow up blog with highlights from College GameDay, featuring the tailgating in the lots, and most importantly, the big game. The winner gets to put up their dukes against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship the following Saturday Night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Bowl game implications weigh heavily on this game too, with the winner of this game likely getting the nod to go to a NY6 Bowl Game – whether that be the Rose Bowl or the Orange Bowl game as an at-large bid – depending on the outcome of the Big Ten Championship.
ESPN College Gameday kicks off from Northrup Mall at 8:00am Central Time, with game time kicking off at 2:30pm on ABC.