Being a fan of a Big Ten football team and the Big Ten conference in general means you must have a certain affinity for rivalries and trophy games. Nearly every single team plays for more than one trophy. In fact some play for three or four every year. However, with the recent split to divisional play and with it a split of some historical rivalries it begs the question are trophy games losing their meaning in the modern era of the Big Ten?
On the eve of The Little Brown Jug and the Illibuck Trophy both being up for grabs this weekend and the results of previous weeks rivalry games it seems only appropriate we explore the issue of what could be dying rivalries inside the Big Ten.
Some may say you are completely crazy, just look at how players react to carrying around trophies and bum rushing the other sideline for that trophy that's now theirs for the next season as all the proof you need.
But, I would submit to you that the historical significance of some of the Big Ten's greatest trophy games are in sever jeopardy of being all but irrelevant. Case in point, perhaps the best of the Big Ten trophy games - Paul Bunyan's Axe.
Now, don't get me wrong, this trophy will never become totally irrelevant because it's perhaps the best trophy in all of college sports, but that doesn't mean the game itself isn't in jeopardy of becoming completely irrelevant. After all, Wisconsin has won nine straight after winning it once again this season. At what point do you say it stops becoming a rivalry and just becomes another game?
There's no doubting that any good rivalry has it's share of up and down moments and of course their share of dominance by one team over the other. However, if you are nearing an entire decade of dominance over another team at what point does it stop becoming a major rivalry and just another game? To put it another way, if two complete classes of collegiate freshman have graduated from your college and haven't seen their team lose do they really even care?
My point? If the fans stop caring about it does it really matter if the players do? Anytime you play a game in the Big Ten there are always personal reasons for one player or many to get up for the game. It could be how they were recruited or weren't recruited by XYZ school or it could be because their hated high school rivals have a ton of players on the opposite team. Whatever the motivation, there will always be some juice on the sidelines no matter what.
If the fans start to not care though, I have to say the rivalry begins to die and in the case of The Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe there seems to be a case of that, especially amongst the younger set in the fan base. I mean, hell if you're 25 years old the chances of you remembering Minnesota lifting the axe in victory are few and far between. Where's the chance for you to build up a reason to hate the other school?
Catch my drift yet? The same could be said for one of the most underrated trophy games in the conference, the Illibuck Trophy played between Illinois and Ohio State. The teams and coaching staffs do a great job of making people on the teams aware of why this game means so much and just like the Battle for the Axe there is a generational gap happening that could threaten to leave this trophy behind. Oh, and this little thing simply known as "The Game."
At least this game is played inside the Leaders Division and therefore the game will always have the chance of significant meaning unlike what happens with the Axe. Ohio State has won 8 of the last 10 games played (I'm counting the vacated 2010 win), but I will say this for the game - it has survived a 15 game winning streak by the Buckeyes once before.
However, that was back in the late 60's and early 70's when this game had vastly more meaning on both sidelines. Today this game is secondary for the Buckeyes and while that may create some resentment on the Illini side of things it's the truth. Until the Illini are relevant challengers to the Buckeyes, Badgers and Nittany Lions inside the division this game will continue to lose some of it's meaning and that would be a shame.
Lastly, I provide to you another game being played this weekend - Michigan vs. Minnesota, otherwise known as the battle for The Little Brown Jug. It's the Big Ten's longest single trophy game played (yes, I'm aware that UW vs. Minny is longer, but they played for two trophies in their history), but like the Axe game it's in danger of becoming about as irrelevant as possible.
Simply put the game isn't competitive. Rivalries start and end because of a few reasons but the one constant reason is because they become competitive games or because they become not so competitive. Again, I'm well aware that rivalries have ebbs and flows to them and that's the way they should be, but we're entering a period of historically bad football for the once proud Gopher program. Hell since 1985 the Gophers have managed to win the trophy all of twice. Lately it's become an annual butt kicking by Michigan and Minnesota has managed to score more than 20 points on only three occasions in the last 26 years (22 meetings).
At what point does it just become another game and one that just has a trophy attached to it and no longer a rivalry?
To this writer you need both teams to at least be capable of winning the game on any given year for the game to really matter and it's a shame because these trophy games are a great symbol of what makes this conference unique and one of the greatest in all of college sports.
It's time that these games begin to mean something once again for the sake of the conference and for the sake of the fans of these schools involved. To those of us over the ages of 25 all three of these games have significant meaning as we have a deeper connection to the past thanks to our parents and grandparents, but it's increasingly becoming harder for us to pass down those same traditions, hatreds, and jokes when the games themselves have become jokes.
Here's to hoping these rivalry games don't become dead in the new and more modern Big Ten, but I fear the era of the biggest trophy games mattering may well be dying a slow and painful death.
What say you? Leave a comment below or continue the debate by following us on Twitter @DelanysDozen.