A Spicy Heartland Rivalry

Oh sure, there are a pair of gargantuan Top 10 college football matchups on tap this weekend, headlined by the Top 3, “Game of the Century” type showdown #1 Tennessee and #3 Georgia, with a juicy undercard of #6 Alabama and #10 LSU from Death Valley.

But to truly feel the pure essence of sporting hate, to taste the black liquor of disdain and derision, the bitter pill of football hatred, one need turn their eyes to the Corn Belt this Saturday where a Flyover Country brouhaha is in the making in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Yes, I am talking about Purdue-Iowa.

What, you scoff?

I suppose you don’t even remember the Legends and Leaders, either.

It all started in 2011, when college football realignment was still new and shiny, and bringing in Nebraska to the Big 10 was seen as a slam-dunk addition of a blue blood heavyweight (how is that working out for ya, bugeaters?)

In its collective wisdom, the athletic directors of the Big 10 decided creating divisions by arbitrary geographic line would lead to competitive unbalance (uh duh) so they instead separated the teams based on recent success, slapped the hilariously pompous monikers “Legends” and “Leaders” onto those two new divisions, and worked to preserve historic rivalries.

Thus, Ohio State and Michigan kept The Game. Paul Bunyan’s Axe was preserved as Minnesota and Wisconsin remained protected rivals despite being in opposite divisions. Northwestern played in-state big brother Illinois each season. However, as the game of musical chairs wound down and the music stopped, two programs clad in black and gold loved by fan bases with a fondness for pork tenderloin sandwiches eyed each other warily.

By conference fiat, the MOST HATED RIVALRY between the Hawkeyes and Boilermakers was born.  

It started a little tongue-in-cheek — full disclosure, I am a longtime Iowa fan who always kind of admired Purdue as a plucky program with good quarterbacks that sometimes derailed either Michigan or Ohio State – but has grown legitimately contentious.

In addition to the complementary color schemes, both schools cemented their modern football reputation thanks to innovative head coaches that disrupted the usual Big 10 powers: Hayden Fry in the 1980s for Iowa and Joe Tiller in the 1990s for Purdue. Both have the irritation of other Power 5 conference foes within their own borders: Indiana and Notre Dame for the Boilers, Iowa State for the Hawkeyes. Both programs suffer from the frustration of often being good-but-not-great.

Old-timer Iowa fans also remember Purdue as a perpetual thorn-in-the-side, as the Boilers won 20 games in a row between 1961 and 1980. It remains a source of frustration for Iowa fans that Purdue holds an impressive series record of 50-39-3 against Iowa, despite being a notch below the Hawkeyes on the power scale for the past few decades. Iowa has a .543 winning percentage to Purdue’s .519, has more conference championships, bowl game appearances, all-time wins, All-Americans and Heisman winners than Purdue, yet is still digging out of that head-to-head hole.

This Saturday’s looming showdown is extra salty thanks to the transfer of Iowa wide receivers Charlie Jones and Tyrone Tracy, likely because as receivers, they enjoy playing in an offense that slings the ball around and isn’t mired in the 130s of total offense. Jones has been a legit star-in-the-making at Purdue, where playing with his childhood friend Aidan O’Connell he has amassed a Big 10-leading 840 yards on 72 receptions. That is like three years’ worth of catches and yards in a Brian Ferentz-headed offense.

One game separates the two teams in both overall and conference record and defending Big 10 West Division champions Iowa would like nothing better than to put a home knot on the head of the Boilers, much as Purdue did to them in Kinnick Stadium last season. For its part, Purdue has never won a Big 10 West Division title and knows the hated Hawkeyes are a major obstacle standing between them and that goal.

So you may want to tune in for this under-the-radar but compelling Midwest mollywhopper of a rivalry Saturday. Behind the heartland-of-America politeness, hateful hearts pump black and gold blood, hoping their corn-fed gridiron fellows will come out on top.

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