- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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For much of its history, the Big Ten staged a championship game at the end of the season. It was called Ohio State vs. Michigan.
Then the league added Penn State in the 1990s and Nebraska in 2011, two more blue-chip programs used to competing for national championships on at least a semi-annual basis. It made sense, then, to split the four of those schools up when the conference went to divisions this year so as to create competitive balance. Let them duke it out in the regular season and then meet for a winner-take-all affair in Indianapolis.
Except it hasn't turned out that way, at least in Year One of the Big Ten title game. All four of the league's most tradition-filled powers are sitting home this weekend, waiting for bowl invitations. Instead, Michigan State and Wisconsin are battling for the Stagg-[Name Redacted] Championship Trophy on Saturday.
"The fact that the standard names aren't here, really, it's a new era," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
The Spartans and Badgers are doing their best to change the perception of who the real Big Ten superpowers are.
It's not all that surprising to see Wisconsin in the title game. The program has been steadily enhancing its reputation for some time, going to three Rose Bowls in the 1990s under Barry Alvarez and punching a ticket to Pasadena last season by winning a share of the league title. Last week's blowout victory over Penn State gave the Badgers 10 wins for the third straight year, the first time that has been done in school history. Wisconsin is 31-7 since 2009, the best record by any Big Ten team in that span.
"A lot of positive things are going on here," said head coach Bret Bielema, who is 59-18 since succeeding Alvarez. "I was able to sit in my office [Sunday] with a recruit, and I pointed at my desk. I told him, 'Over the last 20 plus-years, only two coaches have sat there. Some other programs have had three, four and even five coaches in that exact same time.' So the consistency is there."
The Badgers have been knocking on the door of the national elite, finishing No. 5 in the final BCS standings last year and coming within a couple of last-minute, long touchdown throws of getting into the national title chase this season. The success of Russell Wilson at quarterback has likely opened new recruiting doors, showing that quarterbacks can become stars in Madison, not just huge offensive linemen and running backs.
Wisconsin knocked off then-No. 1 Ohio State last season and no doubt benefited from the Buckeyes' struggles this season (even though the Badgers lost in Columbus). Urban Meyer will make life more difficult in the Leaders Division, but Bielema has built a program with staying power.
"We can be one of the elite teams in this conference and take the conference and make it ours," Wisconsin senior defensive lineman Patrick Butrym said. "But we need to have success for more than two years if we want to do that."
Having success for two straight years had often proved elusive for Michigan State. The Spartans have long been known as one of the most inconsistent, arguably underachieving, teams in the Big Ten. Every step forward in East Lansing seemed to be accompanied by a pratfall.
That's beginning to change under Dantonio. The Spartans followed up last year's 11-1 regular-season record with a Legends Division championship this year. They proved they could win on the road, continued their recent dominance against rival Michigan and snapped a losing streak at Ohio State. For the first time in school history, Michigan State has put together back-to-back 10-win seasons.
"We've worked long and hard to try to remove that stigma and build a championship-type program here," Dantonio said. "Right now, Michigan State is moving in the direction we want to move in. I don't think we've accomplished our ultimate goal yet, but we're very, very close."
Dantonio says Wisconsin is one of the programs he looked to emulate when he took over the Spartans. Some hurdles remain, including winning a bowl game. Last season, Michigan State won a share of the Big Ten title but got destroyed 49-7 by Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.
"We felt like, at the very least, we should have gone to a BCS game [last season]," Dantonio said. "In retrospect, we didn't play to that level when we had a chance, so that ended the discussion as far as I was concerned. It was like we climbed a mountain, got to the top and found out there were other mountains to climb."
The Rose Bowl remains Mount Everest for the Spartans. They haven't reached that summit since 1988. To put that in perspective, offensive lineman Joel Foreman pointed out that he and the team's other fifth-year seniors were born in 1988.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin is trying to win a second consecutive Big Ten title for only the third time in history. The other two came in 1998-99 and way back in 1896-97. Three of the Badgers' wins in that pair of 19th century glory years were credited against Madison High School.
Safe to say that the competition is a little tougher these days. But so are Michigan State and Wisconsin. They might not have the tradition of Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska, but times are changing.
"You can't erase the history those four schools have had," Bielema said, "but history is in the history books. We try to focus on the now and what's in the newspaper today."
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