Paul Bunyan's Axe

Minnesota took home Paul Bunyan's Axe last season for the first time since 2003.

LINCOLN — P.J. Fleck got his wish.

ESPN’s “College GameDay” is coming to town for the Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry, which is even better than ESPN choosing Rowtheboatville for the Penn State game.

Snow on the ground, perhaps throughout the game? All the Big Ten West marbles in play? That fits Fleck — the college incarnation of George Allen or Jerry Glanville — to a T.

The man in his third year at Minnesota also has a long memory. Check out his line from Tuesday’s press conference about what the league’s media thought of the Gophers this season.

“We were picked six in the West,” Fleck said. “Here we are playing for all the things you’ve written about, in the last game of the year. There’s a lot of tremendous things. Worst-case scenario, there’s unbelievable things. Best-case scenario, a tremendous end of the story somehow, some way.”

The story for Minnesota actually began last November, when the Gophers started a late-season winning streak that included a stunning 37-15 thumping of the Badgers. It was Minnesota’s first win in the series since 2003. Fleck shared the trophy axe with as many Gopher fans and players who wanted to be a part of the celebration.

“Our state of Minnesota hadn’t seen the axe for 15 years,” Fleck said. “That’s like finding your long lost grandfather, knowing he exists, then you find him. Don’t you want to go see him? If he exists, he’s in the state, you’re probably going to drive and see the guy.”

Wisconsin is a bit more, shall we say, reserved.

But it is Wisconsin, the team that won the West in 2014, 2016 and 2017. And the Badgers have a chance to win another division crown. They’ll also have revenge on the mind. There’s a reason they’re favored at Minnesota in the biggest game the Gophers have played in a long, long time.

Minnesota has the athletes — and scheme — on offense to make Wisconsin’s defense sweat. Ohio State showed the path. Nebraska and Purdue walked that path. Minnesota, with better skill talent than the Huskers or Boilermakers, will have success.

But the Gopher defense shows signs of wear and tear. They peaked weeks ago. The second half against Penn State was shaky as heck, and Minnesota was lucky to win. Northwestern looked like a somewhat normal offense last weekend. Northwestern is not normal on offense.

Can Fleck squeeze any more out of his team, or is it emotionally tapped out?

“One game will not define us,” Fleck said. “Saturday, win or lose, will not define where this program is headed, but it’s a huge game. It’s really exciting. Our players are excited. I’m sure Wisconsin is excited. There’s a lot on the line. Who would want it any other way?”

Wisconsin would. And it’ll get its way Saturday.

My pick: No. 13 Wisconsin 34, No. 9 Minnesota 27

Other Big Ten picks

No. 19 Iowa (8-3, 5-3) at Nebraska (5-6, 3-5)

1:30 p.m. Friday, BTN

Unless the weather is absolutely awful — and it’s possible — NU’s power/perimeter run game (that’s what I’m calling it) will get rolling even against Iowa’s defense. And the Huskers will score just enough to post the upset. Line: Iowa by 5 ½

My pick: Nebraska 24, Iowa 23

No. 2 Ohio State (11-0, 8-0) at No. 10 Michigan (9-2, 6-2)

11 a.m., Fox

Michigan is playing better right now than it ever has under Jim Harbaugh. Offense, defense, it’s all working. And there’s refreshingly little pressure on the Wolverines, too. They’re a bigger underdog in terms of perception than the line suggests, and OSU’s ascension to the No. 1 spot in the College Football Playoff poll gives this game a foregone feel. But it’s not. It’s really not. Expect a great one, with a lot of defense. Line: Ohio State by 9

My pick: Ohio State 21, Michigan 17

Northwestern (2-9, 0-8) at Illinois (6-5, 4-4)

11 a.m., FS1

The Illini haven’t won this game since the Tim Beckman era, which was two coaches ago. Lovie Smith picks this one up against the worst team Pat Fitzgerald has fielded and probably ever will field. Line: Illinois by 8

My pick: Illinois 17, Northwestern 15

Indiana (7-4, 4-4) at Purdue (4-7, 3-5)

11 a.m., ESPN2

Have the Hoosiers hit the wall after back-to-back losses to Penn State and Michigan? The Boilermakers are clearly better on offense right now than they have been, and the Old Oaken Bucket is their de facto bowl trophy. Line: Indiana by 6 ½

My pick: Indiana 28, Purdue 24

Maryland (3-8, 1-7) at Michigan State (5-6, 3-5)

2:30 p.m., FS1

Maryland put forth one of the more incompetent performances I’ve seen from a moderately talented team. There are some serious issues with the Terrapins’ offense. Line: Michigan State by 22

My pick: Michigan State 28, Maryland 3

Rutgers (2-9, 0-8) at No. 12 Penn State (9-2, 6-2)

2:30 p.m., BTN

The real drama will be whether Rutgers Athletic Director Patrick Hobbs still has a job after failing to land Greg Schiano, the coach fans and media want. Line: Penn State by 40 ½

My pick: Penn State 52, Rutgers 7

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