Any self respecting Ohio State over the age of six, or really, any Ohio resident, could tell you who Ohio State's principal rival is. That's Michigan. Everything else is secondary. Over the years, the Buckeyes have occasionally built up other rivalries, like with Penn State before they were declawed, or with Illinois, which even had a trophy and everything. Granted, I had no idea Ohio State and Illinois had a rivalry until NCAA 2006 told me, but hey, still counts. Shame on my ignorance.
Who is that rival now? It's pretty obvious that after Michigan, the school that has cause the most ire for Buckeye fans is Wisconsin.
There are lots of reasons for the heightened animosity towards the Wisconsin football program, but perhaps none were greater than former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema, affectionately (ahh, who are we kidding, there's no affection there) referred to as Bert all over the Internet. Bielema was boorish, had no qualms about running up the score, was tone deaf in interviews, and whose general behavior made posts like this appear like a documentary. Despite having a stomach that rivals that of Rick Ross, you would absolutely not want to leave your wife or girlfriend alone with Bert for an hour. He was not a difficult man to hate.
Bert did lead Wisconsin to three straight Big Ten titles (although lets be real, that last one needs an asterisk the size of the sun. You were 3rd Wisconsin; even Penn State beat you), but it's easy to forget that he really didn't have success against Ohio State. During Bert's tenure, the Badgers went 1-5, with their lone victory a 31-18 heartbreaker in 2010, when Ohio State was ranked #1. Even with ALL RUSSELL WILSON EVERYTHING, Wisconsin couldn't secure a win, thanks to this gorgeous Hail Mary.
But now Bert is off to Arkansas, where he's trolling Wisconsin fans on Twitter when he isn't busy losing to Rutgers. His replacement? Gary Andersen, a former Urban Meyer hire (Meyer has since said Andersen was one of his best hires, actually), and a friend. As far as demeanor goes, for as much as Bert was a boorish overgrown frat boy, Andersen acts like a Mormon Bishop. He's a total opposite, and out of the box, will be a much harder man to hate.
So is the rivalry at risk now that the main bad guy is gone? I wouldn't worry about it too much. These matchups, especially the one on Saturday, should be a big deal for a while longer.
The football implications are obvious. This game is the de facto Leaders Division title game. With Wisconsin not playing Michigan, Nebraska or Michigan State this season, assuming they can get past Penn State and Northwestern, it's tough to find another league loss for the Badgers. If Wisconsin beats Ohio State, the Buckeyes will need a lot of luck just to get into the Big Ten Title Game, even if they win out. It's tough to call something a "must win" game in late September, but this really is as must win as they come if the Buckeyes have legitimate BCS title game aspirations this year (SPOILER: they do).
The all-time OSU/Wisconsin history isn't kind to the Badgers. Wisconsin is only 18-55 against Ohio State, in no small part thanks to the fact that their football team took a few decades off before Alvarez came to town. From 1948 to 1980, Wisconsin beat Ohio State exactly once. From 1987-2000, their fortunes only improved a little, beating Ohio State three times. It isn't quite Northwestern territory, but it wasn't good.
But recent history has been much more competitive. From 2000 on, Wisconsin is 4-7 against OSU, with the bulk of the damage coming during the Alvarez years. They knocked off a #1 OSU team, they were only the Big Ten team to openly vex Jim Tressel, and they even won in Columbus twice. Perhaps more infuriating, they've done it by copying the Ohio State blueprint: strong power running game, serviceable passing attack, no turnovers, strong defense. The even wear a similar shade of red (don't tell Shelely Meyer this though). It's one thing to get beaten; it's quite another to lose to an imitation of yourself.
It's not like Wisconsin will now be bereft of villains. While the Buckeyes love their military-style band that is nothing if not disciplined, let's just say that Wisconsin's doesn't follow that same tradition. It also isn't hard to hate on Jared Abbrederis, who feels like he's been a Badger for at least a decade, just to troll Ohio State. Madison itself is beautiful, but I can see Woody Hayes probably hating it. It isn't hard to think of reasons here.
If anything threatens the progress of the rivalry, it's new intra-league realignment, which will put OSU and Wisconsin in separate divisions. They're not scheduled to meet in the regular season afterwards until 2016. It wouldn't surprise me if the two teams met at least once in Indianapolis before then though, which would only add fuel to the fire.
Bert or no Bert, this Saturday, and many Saturdays to come, are still going to be a doozy.