(AP) - Before the season, only the most optimistic Minnesota fans would have thought their Gophers would have something more tangible than Paul Bunyan's Axe at stake when it was time to play Wisconsin.
How about a trip to the Big Ten championship game?
A Gophers team picked in the preseason to finish fifth in the seven-team Big Ten West will play at Wisconsin on Saturday for the division title and a matchup with East champ Ohio State on Dec. 6.
"This is what we have been working for all year," offensive lineman Zac Epping said after Saturday's 28-24 win at Nebraska. "Whoever wins gets to go to the Big Ten championship game, and everyone is excited for it. We get to battle for the Axe. It's going to be a hell of a game."
Minnesota (8-3, 5-2), which moved into the Top 25 at No. 22, has lost 10 straight and 15 of the last 17 to No. 14 Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1). The Gophers haven't won in Madison since 1994 in a series that dates to 1890 - the longest rivalry in football's top tier.
They'll have plenty of confidence this week after what they accomplished as 10-point underdogs against Nebraska. They trailed by two touchdowns at halftime and, with star running back David Cobb out with a left hamstring injury, were down 10 in the middle of the third quarter.
Minnesota still ran for 281 yards and held Cornhuskers star back Ameer Abdullah below 100 yards. Now, they'll get an even bigger defensive test.
Melvin Gordon hit the 200-yard mark for the third week in a row in last Saturday's 26-24 win at Iowa, giving him a total of 813 yards and seven touchdowns in that stretch. With 2,109 yards and an almost-certain ticket to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist, there would seem to be little left to accomplish in college for the junior.
But on Wisconsin's Senior Day, Gordon won't be introduced with the seniors in the pregame ceremony even though it most likely will be his final home game, too.
"I won't think about that until later," he said. "There's so much we have to focus on."
Wisconsin's home finale didn't go so well last season. A 25-point favorite coming in and riding a six-game winning streak, including a 20-7 victory at Minnesota the week before, the Badgers lost 31-24 to Penn State before falling to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.
This Wisconsin team has also won six straight, but it's taking nothing for granted in a rivalry that looks to be rejuvenated.
"It's not just Senior Day, not just a rivalry game - it's all of the above," coach Gary Andersen said. "Two very good football teams that have earned their way into this position. It's a big-time moment - it's what the kids play for."
This game likely will be chippy regardless of the division title at stake. Last year, after the Badgers took hold of the Axe, the Gophers encircled the goal post in front of their student section and refused to let the Badgers near it. Pushing and shoving ensued.
"Last year it was this close to going south," said Andersen, holding his thumb and index finger about a half-inch apart.
To help avert any postgame tension, Andersen said a new rule would be in place. Instead of the Axe being kept during the second half on the sideline of the team that won the prize the previous year, the trophy would be kept out of sight until late in the game, situated at the goal post closest to the locker room for the leading or winning team.
Minnesota hasn't come within 13 points of grabbing the Axe in the past four meetings, and the Badgers racked up 337 rushing yards in a 38-13 win when the game was played in Madison two years ago.
Five of the Gophers' seven Big Ten games have been decided by one possession, though they may be looking at a tight finish here without their top back. Coach Jerry Kill on Tuesday pronounced Cobb as "very questionable."
Whatever the case, don't look for Minnesota to be overcome by the magnitude of a rare high-stakes game.
Donnell Kirkwood, who along with Rodrick Williams filled in for the injured Cobb against Nebraska, said the Gophers will be prepared for the fan and media attention that is sure to come this week.
"This is a mature team," he said, "and I don't think it will bother us at all."