- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Wisconsin and Iowa are about as dead even as two rivals can be.
The two teams resume playing for the Heartland Trophy on Saturday after a two-year break, and the all-time series is tied 42-42-2. Both schools are located in states that don't produce many FBS prospects each year, and the ones who do come from their backyard tend to be linemen. And so it's right that both programs' calling card is their offensive line and running game.
The facilities aren't that much different at each place, right down to their excellent game-day atmospheres. Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium holds about 10,000 more fans than Iowa's Kinnick Stadium, but that's not a huge advantage or disadvantage.
Barry Alvarez, the architect of Wisconsin's modern success, was an assistant under Hayden Fry at Iowa. Alvarez's handpicked assistant, Bret Bielema, played and later coached for the Hawkeyes. The similarities go on and on.
"The physicality both teams play with is a big part of the programs," Bielema said on Wednesday. "I heard it from Kirk [Ferentz] when I was an assistant to him and carried it forward to the days when I was with coach Alvarez. The other thing is that those kids are commonly recruited against one another. A lot of times, half the roster at Iowa was guys we either recruited or evaluated, and vice versa."
One thing you can say about each team is that it knows exactly what it is.
Ferentz has been Iowa's head coach for 15 years, and he didn't even change coordinators until two years ago. While the Hawkeyes have made small tweaks here and there, they've always stayed true to Ferentz's core beliefs.
"Teams that are successful and sustain success tend to be that way," Ferentz said this week. "At some point, you just have to decide, hey, who are you and what do you believe in, and then you try to work to that end. I think it’s a challenge to change every year or every two months. It's tough to get anywhere doing that."
Alvarez established a program built around massive but athletic offensive lines and a powerful running game. When he hired Bielema, he made sure that continued. First-year head coach Gary Andersen wisely hasn't deviated from that formula.
"We've come up with a system, and we know who we are and what our style of play is," Alvarez told ESPN.com. "I don't know what other people do. I just know what has consistently been good for us."
So the two rivals share much in common. It just so happens that Wisconsin is on a higher plane right now.
The Badgers are coming off three straight Rose Bowl appearances and are No. 24 in the BCS standings this week. Iowa has been trying to recapture such highs since its 2009 Orange Bowl season, though the Hawkeyes are 5-3 this year, with losses to two undefeated teams (Ohio State and Northern Illinois) and one that's 7-1 (Michigan State).
Wisconsin has much more of a buzz than Iowa, thanks to recent star players like J.J. Watt, Russell Wilson and Montee Ball. The last Hawkeyes player to really resonate nationally was probably quarterback Ricky Stanzi, thanks in large part to his patriotic leanings. The Badgers rolled up huge point totals under Bielema, pushed players hard for national awards and have been involved in several high-profile games the last few years.
That makes an impression on recruits. Three-star running back Chris James of Niles, Ill., was looking at both Iowa and Wisconsin. He recently narrowed his list of schools to three, and the Badgers made it while the Hawkeyes just missed the cut. James said he really liked Iowa and thinks both programs are very similar in their philosophies and styles.
I asked James if Wisconsin's recent success made a difference.
"Yeah, for sure," he said. "I feel like they're dominating right now. They're doing a great job."
The Badgers also seem to have a lot more personality, part of which no doubt stems from the school's friendly media policies. Iowa under Ferentz has mostly played things very close to the vest, rarely opening practices and limiting access to players and assistant coaches. Think about it: What was the last big, national story you read about the Hawkeyes that didn't involve Ferentz's contract? Why have the the Badgers been more open?
"That's just the way we operate," Alvarez said. "Our players have really represented us well. Whenever they get in front of a camera or have a microphone in their face, they speak well. They're our biggest ambassadors, our biggest sales people."
These things, of course, often go in cycles. Iowa beat Wisconsin four straight times from 2002 to 2005 and was going to big bowls every season. The '09 Hawkeyes had plenty of interesting characters, from Stanzi to Pat Angerer to Adrian Clayborn and his dog, Ace. As Ferentz said this week, having an identity is great, but getting great players is even better.
Iowa just missed out on maybe the best player in Saturday's game, Wisconsin tailback Melvin Gordon. He originally committed to the Hawkeyes but the tug of family and his home state eventually swayed him to the Badgers. But Gordon was ready and willing to play for Ferentz.
"I've told other people that Iowa is Iowa and Wisconsin is Wisconsin," he said. "But when it comes down to it, we both love to run the ball. Both defenses are nasty. Both are powerful, both are strong. Things don’t really change."
One program has the clear upper hand right now. But that could start to change if Iowa wins on Saturday.
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