Big Ten Football: Power Ranking the Best Rivalries in the B1G
When people ask why college football is better than professional football, one of the first things that should come to mind is rivalry games. The passion of lifelong fanbases with decades of bad blood between them creates atmospheres that simply cannot be matched in other levels of the sport.
Like many conferences, the Big Ten is chock full of rivalries. In addition, most of these have now been protected on an annual basis thanks to the East-West alignment beginning in 2014. Geography plays a huge role in creating friction between adjacent fans, who then raise children and fans who become players who also embrace the rivalry.
So what makes a great rivalry? In the Midwest, our teams play for trophies (for the most part), and the bigger and sillier, the better. A close record over time also is important, as lopsided rivalries just do not have the same fun and risk involved on a year-to-year basis.
By my count, there are 14 rivalries in the current Big Ten setup. With apologies to Penn State - Ohio State (which is listed as a rivalry but just feels too recent and has no trophy, disqualifying it from this list), here are the top 14 rivalries in the B1G.
Honorable Mention: The Notre Dame Rivalries
Three teams in the conference have a rivalry that dates back before 1900 against Notre Dame, and these games have been on the regular schedule for much of the past two decades. That has usually been a great opportunity for the Big Ten, although sometimes when Notre Dame is great like in 2012, it backfires on all three.
Michigan is the only Big Ten rival with a winning record in the series, albeit the shortest of the three. Notre Dame trails 16-23-1 in the 40 meetings to date, and the Wolverines will hold the advantage for quite some time longer with the series set to take some breaks. If any of the Big Ten rivalries with Notre Dame goes away, this would be the first candidate. That would be a shame, but such is life in a nine-game conference schedule world.
Michigan State has not fared as well against the Irish, as Notre Dame holds a 46-28-1 edge in this series. These teams play for the Megaphone Trophy, which comes in handy when the Leprechaun wants to yell at a safe distance from Sparty, who would pound him into dust. Ever since Mark Dantonio took over the Spartans, this has been a can't-miss game.
Finally, Purdue has played the Irish more than any other conference team, and the Boilermakers likely benefit the most from this opportunity to play their in-state neighbors. Still, Notre Dame holds a massive 56-26-2 lead over the Boilermakers, which means Purdue only really benefits every three years or so.
Notre Dame will always remain a rival to the conference it spurned on multiple occasions. Let's hope those games continue, even though they do not qualify technically as Big Ten rivalries.
14. Minnesota vs. Penn State
Penn State leads series 8-4 (Minnesota leads 4-3 when considering NCAA sanctions).
When the Nittany Lions came into the conference in 1993, the first conference game for the program came against Minnesota. To commemorate the new union that has now gone strong for 20 years, the Governor's Victory Bell was instituted as a trophy these teams play for.
The series has been full of streaks, as Penn State won the first four, followed by four Minnesota wins, and four Penn State wins. Although the trophy sits in an opponent's case in State College like many of the trophies Minnesota plays for and loses most seasons, Minnesota could stake claim to it considering the past four losses have been vacated as wins for PSU.
The series begins again this year, but will become a periodic item once the conference splits. This was a rivalry that does not survive the new division alignment, but nobody even mentions it because this is a rivalry in name only. If it were not for the trophy, this would not even merit mention.
But they play for a trophy, so we will put this on the list as the worst Big Ten rivalry.
13. Michigan State vs. Penn State
Penn State leads 14-13-1 (again, Michigan State takes the lead if the sanctions are considered).
Yet another rivalry manufactured for Penn State upon entering the Big Ten was the battle for the Land Grant Trophy. The sheer irrelevance of this trophy actually outguns the Governor's Victory Bell. However, this series has better history than Minnesota-PSU, and this rivalry will now continue on an annual basis in the East Division.
Those factors are enough to push this out of the basement. Despite being in the league for 20 years, the Nittany Lions still have not really established much of a rivalry with others in the Big Ten. There might be some trophy games, but these are not what one would expect for a program at this level. Perhaps the addition of Rutgers and Maryland will add more rivalries that mean something for Penn State.
But probably not. Only a long-term close series will eventually germinate into a real rivalry for the Nittany Lions in the Big Ten.
12. Iowa vs. Nebraska
Nebraska leads the series 28-12-3.
Similar to when Penn State came into the conference, Nebraska has been welcomed to the best league in the Midwest with its very own trophy game. In this case, the only state that shares a border with Nebraska has become the natural rival in Iowa.
Nebraska has dominated the historical series, though, and two more wins in the first two conference meetings have made the record more lopsided. Some Nebraska fans have expressed a little distaste that this is considered a rivalry, but the Cornhuskers should not look down on their neighbors because the Hawkeyes tend to cycle between bad and great every four to five years.
For now, the latest massive piece of wood will continue to be given out on Black Friday, a nice break from shopping and time with family every Thanksgiving weekend. Hopefully this rivalry buds into one of the better ones in the conference, but it is way too early to rank this above anything other than the Penn State atrocities.
11. Illinois vs. Ohio State
Ohio State leads series 63-30-4.
If you could name or identify the trophy listed above without the slide title or the caption, you fit into one of three categories: (1) Ohio State graduate, (2) Illinois graduate, or (3) knows way too much about college football. There's no excuse for anyone else to actually know this bit of trivia, in the annals of Big Ten football rivalry trophies.
If you want a great read, check out why Illibuck is the "Most Interesting Turtle In The World." That should explain all you need to know about this epic turtle.
It is actually surprising the series is not more lopsided, but Illinois has been one of those thorn-in-the-side type of programs for the Buckeyes to deal with. The series may become more lopsided as long as Urban Meyer is in town in Columbus, although this is one of the few rivalries not protected by the 2014 divisional alignment.
However, neither school's fans really are too broken up about it. If you are, please call 1-800-get-a-turtle.
10. Indiana vs. Michigan State
Michigan State leads series 42-14-2.
Nothing says rivalry champion like a spittoon, but that is exactly what these teams play for. Michigan State holds the "honor" of playing for two of the most awkward rivalry trophies in the Land Grant Trophy and this one, but at least the Spartans normally get to keep this one with a 75 percent win percentage.
There are some great stories out there about everyone on a winning team spitting into the spittoon to celebrate the victory. As a result, if you ever come into possession of this trophy, do not drink from it, under any circumstances. That would be a massive mistake.
This rivalry sneaks into the top 10 thanks to being protected in the East-West division alignment. Plus the spittoon looks a bit better than the old turtle right behind it on the list. Assuming Kevin Wilson continues to improve Indiana, this may be a series worth watching in the future.
9. Illinois vs. Purdue
Illinois leads the series 42-39-6.
The Illini and the Boilermakers play for a trophy called the Purdue Cannon, which seems like a one-sided trophy if you've ever heard of one. However, Illinois has owned the cannon more often than not in a highly even series.
Purdue and Illinois both stand in the upper middle of their respective neighboring states, and both are evenly matched when it comes to academics and athletics. Thanks to Purdue being shipped into the new West Division with the Central time zone teams, this rivalry will continue and may thrive as these teams claw past one another to try to stay out of the basement in that division.
Plus, just like my high opinion of the Boilermaker mascot train in a power ranking from a month ago, how can you beat a cannon? This trophy, if functioning, is the coolest and most dangerous trophy in the land. That significantly helps, even though there may not be much sexiness in this matchup.
8. Michigan vs. Minnesota
Michigan leads the series 72-24-3.
Michigan and Minnesota play for the Little Brown Jug, which is one of the oldest rivalry trophies in all of college football. Despite the charm of the jug, which is not all that little as can be seen above, the games between these two teams have been highly lopsided since Minnesota was a national power in the 1950s.
When the same team seems to pick up and take the trophy every single year, it can really take some steam out of a historic rivalry. As a result, not many fans are terribly broken up about this trophy game being one of the very few not protected by the East-West division alignment. Minnesota will have to suffer through longer gaps between opportunities to get the jug back in the future.
There are not a whole lot of reasons for these schools to be rivals, other than the long-term common conference affiliation. However, the fans do not clash a lot in view of the geographical separation between the two, and there's only a trophy because Minnesota plays for a trophy in every game.
In other words, you can thank the Golden Gophers for every little league player getting a trophy every year. It's their fault.
7. Indiana vs. Purdue
Purdue leads the series 72-39-6.
Now we begin getting into the real meat on the rivalry schedule. Indiana and Purdue have played on the final weekend of the season for quite some time, and this game is so important that it will be the only protected East-West crossover game in the new division alignment.
In addition, one or both of these teams is usually playing for its postseason life when this game occurs. The drive for a sixth win and bowl eligibility has led to some great moments, such as Indiana finally winning the right to Play 13 for deceased coach Terry Hoeppner a few years ago, or Purdue completing an improbable 3-0 finish to reach 6-6 in Danny Hope's final season last year.
The Old Oaken Bucket trophy has a lot of character as well, as the golden letter of the winning school is added to the bucket each season. This is a much more distinct way of marking a winner than most other rivalry trophies, and looking at the picture above shows Purdue's dominance in a clear way on the trophy itself.
Considering the voodoo lock the Hoosiers have on Purdue basketball, it seems only fair the football series is lopsided in the other direction. This lopsided record keeps this rivalry from the top five.
6. Iowa vs. Wisconsin
Series is tied at 42-42-2.
Nothing says true rivals like a completely tied overall record, and that is precisely what Wisconsin and Iowa have done over the years. That balance tends to make this one of the more compelling games to watch each Big Ten season, although the series has taken a hit with a break the past couple of seasons.
The Heartland Trophy is the newest trophy contested between original members of the 10-member Big Ten back before Penn State and Nebraska joined. For this trophy, a big golden bull was chosen, which fits the personalities of the states doing battle on the football field well.
Heroes Game take note: if you want a rivalry with Iowa to be taken seriously, get a big gold farm animal trophy (a more famous pig is coming up in the following slides).
Now that Wisconsin will be headed back to the West and away from the island that was the Leaders Division, the Badgers will have an opportunity to play Iowa every single season. Assuming the overall tally stays close, this could remain the most balanced sustained rivalry in the conference.
5. Illinois vs. Northwestern
Illinois leads series 54-47-5.
The battle between the two schools in Illinois ranks in the top five because the two football programs are evenly matched over time, despite the disadvantages Northwestern may have due to the hard academics. However, smart guys can play football too, as proven by the likes of Stanford in recent seasons.
Northwestern has found a real leader in Pat Fitzgerald, while Illinois struggles to find the next great coach in Champaign. If this trend continues for a few more years, then the Wildcats may finally catch up to Illinois in the all-time series.
City school vs. country school, and private school vs. public state university. This game is like a storybook game between two natural opposites and rivals. If these teams still played for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk (purged like Chief Illiniwek a few years ago), this game could rank a bit higher on the list.
However, switching to the generic-looking Land of Lincoln Trophy will not win many points overall.
Look for Illinois to bounce back in a couple years and make this game truly interesting again.
4. Iowa vs. Minnesota
Minnesota leads the series 61-43-2.
The reason why the Heartland Trophy between the Hawkeyes and Wisconsin looks so good is that it harkens back to the original animal trophy in the Big Ten: the Floyd of Rosedale. Floyd is a big pig that commemorates the Midwest and farming that both of these states add to the union. Plus, who doesn't want to play for the pig?
This series dates back to 1891 and has taken few breaks along the way. This rivalry stays together just like it does in the Legends Division when the divisions realign to the east and the west. Minnesota put together the surprising deficit for Iowa during the golden Minnesota era of the 1950s and earlier.
Although this game is no longer played on the final weekend of the season, there is still significant competitiveness and passion between these two rivals.
Similar to Purdue and Illinois, this rivalry could also be marked by how it can enable one or the other to leapfrog towards the front of the class and compete for division championships. This friendly north-south rivalry easily makes it into the top four.
3. Michigan vs. Michigan State
Michigan leads the series 68-32-5.
Here is the quintessential game between a big brother and a little brother in the great state of Michigan. The Wolverines and Spartans have little love lost as both teams fight on the recruiting trail for athletes as well as top students. East Lansing has a bit of a chip on the shoulder, but that serves this team well as it turns out.
Paul Bunyan is an awesome literary character, and it is great to see these Michigan schools play for a big likeness of that character. Add this to the Heartland Trophy, and you'd have the entire cast present in one place at one time. While Bunyan has an axe in the trophy, this axe is apparently not usable, and that will hurt the chances to overcome the next rivalry.
For all the hate we gave Michigan State's other rivalries, this one makes up for it in pure hatred across the fanbases (with a healthy dose of respect as well), a competitive split in the past decade, and some of the craziest plays you will ever see. Weird things happen when state pride is on the line, and this ranks as the best of the three intra-state rivalries we have in the Big Ten.
It would have been a real shame to split these two rivals in the new divisional alignment. Thus, we end up with Indiana getting split instead, which feels like the right decision.
2. Minnesota vs. Wisconsin
Minnesota leads the series 58-56-2.
For all the silly trophy games Minnesota does play, the top rivalry on the list from Minneapolis comes with the neighboring Wisconsin Badgers, as these teams do battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe.
While the Bunyan Trophy is very nifty in the state of Michigan, these two rivals take it to a whole new level by playing for an axe big enough to belong to the fictional giant lumberjack.
Some of the absolute best moments in the past decade have come when the axe has switched hands, as the winning team will rush over to hoist this monster axe immediately if the other team had possession of it heading into the game.
Football players fighting and racing one another to lift an axe looks like a scene straight out of a comedy zombie movie, and a good one at that.
Plus, this series is highly even over the past 100+ years. This is another good reason for Wisconsin to head back west, as the rivalries preserved are more valuable than some hopeful notion of competitive balance.
The big axe may be the coolest rivalry trophy in a closely-contested pairing, but it falls just short of the greatness at No. 1.
1. Michigan vs. Ohio State
Michigan leads the series 58-44-6.
Go Blue vs. Go Bucks. Woody vs. Bo. "tOSU" vs. "TSUN." Hail to the Victors vs. The Best Damn Band In The Land.
Who else could it be at the top of the list?
There is simply nothing better than watching these two teams do battle, regardless of the records or the stakes, and regardless of the location. Both play in absolute meccas of college football, and both fill their stadiums with masses of loud noises and hatred for the other side. However, both teams and fanbases respect each other, which is just as critical as the hate.
Both these teams have hit streaks against the other when one coach dominates another. For example, Lloyd Carr dominated John Cooper, but then was dominated in the back half of his career in Ann Arbor by Jim Tressel.
The only two long-term coaches who played nearly to a draw were Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes, who conducted a "Ten Year War" from 1969-1978 which Michigan narrowly won 5-4-1.
Perhaps Brady Hoke and Urban Meyer can be the next great duo of long-term coaches with close records against the top rival. Regardless, this will always be great entertainment at high noon on the last Saturday in November.