The long-running Wisconsin-Michigan series began in 1892, 23 years after the birth of college football. The Wolverines made the trek west to Madison, and newspapers of the time got right to the point when describing what they witnessed when Michigan won 10-6, the kind of score one might expect from any game between these two teams in any year since then.
"The game was a series of smashes and rushes from the start to finish," read the brief game story in The Saint Paul Globe. "There were no brilliant plays made and the weak tackle of the home team was the reason for the defeat."
So the Wisconsin vs. Michigan series was born.
And so it went for Wisconsin for most of the next century against Michigan.
The series as a whole has been lopsided -- Michigan leads 50-14-1, and Wisconsin has been held under 20 points in 53 of 65 meetings -- and even games in which the teams are perceived to be on even ground have not gone well for the Badgers. Michigan and Wisconsin have met 47 times since the birth of the AP poll in 1936. Only eight of those games have featured Wolverines and Badgers teams that were both ranked in the AP poll at the time. In those ranked matchups, Wisconsin has gone 1-7, with its one win coming by the score of 13-10 during a surprise run to the Rose Bowl in Barry Alvarez's breakthrough 1993 season.
Wisconsin has won four of the past seven meetings, beginning in 2005, during a decade in which it has been the consistently stronger program. Last year, however, reverted to the norm set in 1892: No. 4 Michigan beat No. 8 Wisconsin 14-7, as the Badgers struggled to move the ball with eight first downs, 159 total yards and three turnovers. It was part of a run of high-profile games for a Wisconsin team that played one of the toughest schedules in the country. Although a few of the opponents proved to be overrated, Wisconsin was regularly in the national spotlight, playing seven teams that were ranked in the top 12 of the AP poll at the time of the game. It beat Western Michigan and LSU, Nebraska and Michigan State teams that fell from those lofty rankings. It lost tight games by one touchdown each to the Wolverines, Ohio State and Penn State.
The Badgers hung around the playoff conversation throughout the 2016 season, but those close losses in big games sent them to the Cotton Bowl instead of giving them a national title shot. Had they pulled off wins in the big games they lost, there would have been no questioning their playoff resume, with a schedule ranked the 13th toughest by Jeff Sagarin.
One year later, a similar Wisconsin team -- great defense, great running game, contender for both the Big Ten title and playoff -- has had to deal with a very different narrative.
Entering Saturday's showdown with No. 24 Michigan at Camp Randall Stadium, the Badgers have the 63rd toughest schedule in the Sagarin ratings. It's created season-long skepticism about whether Wisconsin is truly a top-four team or, say, a top-15 team that has benefited from a favorable schedule. The Badgers have three wins over teams that have winning records (Florida Atlantic, Northwestern and Iowa) and one win over a current top-25 team. Iowa was in the top 25 until Wisconsin beat the Hawkeyes 38-14 and held them to 66 total yards last week.
The Badgers are undefeated -- 10-0 for the first time ever -- and, despite the skepticism, ranked fifth by the selection committee, which is two spots ahead of where they were as the top two-loss team at this point last season. They're outside the top four, behind two one-loss teams, but these Badgers also have a clear path to the playoff: Beat Michigan, beat Minnesota and win the Big Ten title game. Either No. 2 Clemson or No. 3 Miami is guaranteed a loss before the final rankings (they'll meet in the ACC title game), and an undefeated Big Ten champion Wisconsin that adds wins over Michigan and, likely, Ohio State would be a near-lock to move up a spot and make the bracket.
FiveThirtyEight's model gives Wisconsin a 29 percent chance of winning out and a 43 percent chance of winning the Big Ten. A loss to Michigan and a win in the Big Ten title game would keep it in the conversation but put the Badgers at the mercy of the committee, which is only now coming around to their resume, almost by default because of that undefeated record.
Their record is not a fluke. The Badgers haven't earned the benefit of the doubt like an undefeated Alabama that has also played a weaker-than-usual schedule, but it's not like we shouldn't believe that they have a legitimate chance. This is a very familiar Wisconsin team, in fact, and over the past 25 years, that's a good thing.
The Badgers have another punishing ground attack. One-hundred twenty-five years after the first Michigan-Wisconsin showdown, many Badgers games can still be accurately described as "a series of smashes and rushes from the start to finish." Wisconsin is unabashedly Wisconsin, sticking to an identity that works: Recruit and develop a powerful offensive line and control games on the ground. Right now, the Badgers are doing this better than Michigan.
In Paul Chryst's third season, the Badgers' line is getting back to its typical high standard, paving the way for a massive freshman season from tailback Jonathan Taylor. Taylor ranks third nationally in rushing, with 219 carries for 1,525 yards and 12 touchdowns. He hasn't been taken seriously as a Heisman candidate because Wisconsin hasn't been in spotlight games against top opponents, but that could change if he shines against the excellent defensive lines of Michigan and Ohio State (should the Buckeyes win the East).
The defense continues to survive change. The Badgers have had a run of defensive coordinator changes, from Dave Aranda to Justin Wilcox to program legend Jim Leonhard, who's in only his second year of coaching. Although star linebacker Jack Cichy was lost to an injury in the preseason, Wisconsin ranks third in yards per play allowed, third in points allowed and first in defensive passer rating. It just held Iowa to 66 total yards and 1.3 yards per play, the third-worst offensive performance of the season behind Kansas at TCU and Maryland at Ohio State. That happened a week after Iowa routed Ohio State, 55-24. Adjust for opponents … and the Badgers still rank first in Football Outsiders' S&P+ defensive ratings and third in the FEI defensive ratings.
In other words: They've played at a high level all season, regardless of schedule. Only one opponent, Northwestern, has scored more than 17 points. Eight of 10 wins have been by at least two touchdowns. Wisconsin has done what the No. 5 team is supposed to do against this schedule.
Wisconsin is reliably good. National championship good? That's unlikely. It's hard to imagine the Badgers keeping pace with Oklahoma or overpowering Alabama, and it's hard to imagine the Badgers winning two games in a playoff. They'd be an underdog. Still, this is a program that has now won double-digit games in nine of the past 13 seasons, long since shedding its former identity as one of the weakest power conference teams.
The Badgers have been to four major bowls in seven years and will play in their fifth Big Ten title game in seven years. I wrote in the preseason that Wisconsin deserves a lot of credit for its reliability. That's true in the big picture, and it's true this season. After all, Clemson lost to Syracuse. Oklahoma lost to Iowa State. Ohio State got blown out by Iowa. Even many of the best teams have down days that end in disappointing losses, but Wisconsin hasn't come particularly close to actually losing. Starting 10-0 is difficult, no matter the schedule, and Wisconsin deserves plenty of praise for what it's accomplished so far.
The Badgers played excellent football most of this season, and while they don't deserve a top-four spot based on their resume right now, there shouldn't be any doubt about how deserving they will be if they win out.
More respect is there for the taking starting this week. Saturday's game with Michigan could have some similarities to how the Badgers-Wolverines series began 125 years ago. These are old-school teams embracing old-school Big Ten ideals, and whoever wins Saturday may not look great doing it. That doesn't matter.
Style points are unnecessary going forward, so long as the Badgers win. If they do, they can't be so easily dismissed as they were way back at the start of this series.