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Polzin: Gap between Wisconsin and Ohio State may only get wider

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A compelling rivalry had developed between the University of Wisconsin football team and a Big Ten powerhouse during a 13-year stretch that began in 1992, just as Barry Alvarez’s colossal rebuilding job was starting to show significant signs of progress.

It wasn’t Ohio State-Michigan, but the Badgers-Buckeyes definitely was a thing. There were 11 meetings and each team won five times, with one tie in 1993 that ended up being good enough to get Alvarez and Co. to the Rose Bowl. Combined scores during that back-and-forth game of tug of war: Ohio State 197, UW 191.

The series has shifted decidedly back in the Buckeyes’ favor since UW’s 24-13 win midway through Alvarez’s penultimate season in 2004. Ohio State has won 11 of the past 12 meetings, including eight in a row heading into a game between the No. 3 Buckeyes (3-0) and Badgers (2-1) on Saturday night at Ohio Stadium.

It’s not that UW has gone backward since the end of the Alvarez era. The Badgers still are cruising down the highway, not holding up any traffic as they enjoy a ride that has been filled with plenty of pretty views since Alvarez hung up his whistle.

One problem: Ohio State put its foot on the gas and left UW — and pretty much every other program in the Big Ten — in its dust. The Badgers still can see the Buckeyes if they squint, but that gap keeps getting wider and this is where it gets really demoralizing if you’re a UW fan: There’s little reason to believe Ohio State can be reeled in anytime soon; in fact, changes in the college football landscape may only lead to it pulling away even more.

That’s the sad backdrop as the Badgers open conference play as a 19-point underdog against a program that has won 93.2% of its games against the rest of the Big Ten since the start of the 2012 season.

“They make it hard,” said UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, who went 3-1 against Ohio State during his stellar career as a safety and returner for the Badgers. “They make you go earn it when you play them and you’ve got to play them for 60 minutes. They don’t get wowed if you come out strong. They don’t get wowed. They expect your best shot because they’re a talented group. You have to continue to push, play in and play out, and put pressure on them and see how they respond.”

Recruiting winners

It’s not hard to find a starting point for this run of dominance by the Buckeyes: Nov. 28, 2011, when Urban Meyer was hired to run the program.

The torch was passed to Ryan Day in 2018 and the race car kept on burning rubber. The Buckeyes are a combined 120-13 under Meyer and Day, including 82-6 against Big Ten teams.

UW is one of eight Big Ten teams that hasn’t beaten Ohio State in the last decade, joining Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern and Rutgers. Michigan State is 2-8 against the Buckeyes but can claim it’s the only team to beat them more than once. Iowa is .500 against Ohio State, only because the Hawkeyes have managed to avoid the Buckeyes in eight of the past 10 seasons.

Those cheers you heard from New Jersey to Nebraska last November was the reaction to Michigan ending an eight-game losing streak to Ohio State, a result that stopped the Buckeyes’ run of Big Ten titles at four.

"They were 11-2 last year and Ryan is on record saying it wasn’t successful,” Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said. “Eleven and two, Rose Bowl victory and it wasn’t good enough. So the expectations are such that if you don’t do anything with the talent, you don’t coach there for long.”

Oh yes, the talent. Ohio State always has accumulated plenty of it as one of college football’s blueblood programs, but Meyer and Day have taken the program’s recruiting to another level.

The Buckeyes’ average national finish in the Rivals recruiting rankings from 2012-22 was 5.2, including nine finishes in the top five during that stretch of 11 classes. Their average finish from 2002-11 was 13.6, with three top-five finishes in 10 classes.

Compare that to UW, which had an average finish of 37.2 from 2012-22 in the Rival rankings with a high-water mark of 14 in 2021. 

“It,” DiNardo said, referring to Ohio State’s rise to supremacy, “starts on signing day.”

While being in the middle of a fertile recruiting area doesn’t hurt — Ohio State has landed 90 players from its own state in the past 11 cycles — the Buckeyes’ national pull has helped them sign at least one player from 31 others states during that same stretch. Wisconsin was added to that list when Carson Hinzman, a four-star offensive lineman who’s from Hammond and played at Saint Croix Central High School, picked the Buckeyes over the Badgers and others in the 2022 recruiting cycle.

Ohio State can sell something many other programs can’t — proof that it can compete for national titles — though UW quarterback Graham Mertz said the recruiting approaches were similar back when he was being recruited by both the Badgers and Buckeyes.

Mertz already was committed to UW when he got calls from both Meyer and Day trying to flip him.

“I was sold on Wisconsin,” Mertz said this week. “I’ve always been sold on Wisconsin, so it was them trying to deter me from that. It wasn’t anything in particular. There’s no other place that I’d rather be, and I said that during the recruitment and I’m standing on that until the day I die. This is my home and nothing could have pulled me away from it.”

Leonhard gave a thoughtful answer earlier this week when I asked him how Ohio State had widened the gap between itself and most everyone else in the Big Ten and more importantly how the Badgers go about trying to shrink it.

“Recruiting is always a huge piece,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of talented guys and continue to churn them out and bring them back in. You’ve got to go out there and be willing to fight against them that way. You’ve got to recruit well and know what sells and what gets kids in the program that are willing to challenge.

“Outside of that, they’re well-coached. There’s no magic. When you’ve got talented players that are well-coached and buy in to what you’re doing and what the team culture is, you’re going to have talent and everyone in the country is trying to match that.

“If I knew the answer, we’d be doing all of it. But you’ve got to have a culture, you’ve got to have a place that kids want to come play and then you’ve got to coach the hell out of them and develop them. The biggest mystery to me is always (the idea) that talented players don’t develop. It’s BS, and they’re a place, among many others in the country, that proves that kids go there and they get better — shocker, when you’re coached well.”

More obstacles

UW hasn’t found itself on the wrong end of this large of a point spread against any opponent since Ohio State was a 26½-point favorite in a 1996 meeting between the teams in Columbus.

There was no Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) wars in college football recruiting back then and the advent of that era is a big reason I have a hard time believing UW catch up with Ohio State anytime soon.

A group of UW donors has formed The Varsity Collective and it sounds like an impressive project. But compare that to the mindset at Ohio State, where Day told 100 members of the Columbus business community in June that he believes it will take $13 million to keep his roster intact.

Thing is, Day likely would have no problem coming up with that money from a football-crazed fan base.

“You’re not going to see that from Wisconsin,” DiNardo said. “I think there are some teams around the country perhaps that are like Wisconsin: very successful, not national-championship-or-bust motivated, that the NIL could help them. But if you’re going to compare Wisconsin and Ohio State in NIL, yes, it’s another setback for Wisconsin.”

DiNardo brought up something else that I hadn’t considered: The impact of Big Ten expansion, specifically how scheduling will play out once the conference likely eliminates divisions once UCLA and Southern Cal join in 2024.

“A team like Wisconsin that’s had a lot of success, when they break up a lot of divisions and they start scheduling (for) TV, everybody wants to see Wisconsin-Michigan, Wisconsin-Ohio State, Wisconsin-Penn State,” DiNardo said. “Now if you’re one of the bottom teams, you might get a break in the schedule. But if you’re Wisconsin, you’re in TV heaven, which means wait until you see your schedule.”


DiNardo apologized if he sounded too negative, but I told him he just was being realistic.

And the reality is that Ohio State barely can see UW in its rear-view mirror right now.

Contact Jim Polzin at


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