The team's nickname originates in the early history of Wisconsin. In the 1820s and 1830s, prospectors came to the state looking for minerals, primarily lead. Without shelter in the winter, the miners had to "live like badgers" in tunnels burrowed into hillsides.
The first Badger football team took the field in 1889, losing the only two games it played that season. In 1890, Wisconsin earned its first victory with a 106–0 drubbing of Whitewater Normal School (now the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater), still the most lopsided win in school history. However, the very next week the Badgers suffered what remains their most lopsided defeat, a humiliating 63–0 loss at the hands of the University of Minnesota. Since then, the Badgers and Gophers have met 122 times, making Wisconsin vs Minnesota the most-played rivalry in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Upon the formation of the Big Ten conference in 1896, Wisconsin became the first-ever conference champion with a 7–1–1 record. Over the next ten years, the Badgers won or shared the conference title three more times (1897, 1901, and 1906), and recorded their first undefeated season, going 9–0–0 (1901). With the exception of their second undefeated season in 1912, in which they won their fifth Big Ten title.
1942 was an important year for Wisconsin football. On October 24, the #6 ranked Badgers defeated the #1 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes at Camp Randall, catapulting Wisconsin to the #2 spot in the AP poll. Unfortunately for the Badgers, their national championship hopes were dashed in a 6–0 defeat by the Iowa Hawkeyes the following week. Nevertheless, Wisconsin won the remainder of its games, finishing the season 8–1–1 and #3 in the AP, while garnering the Helms Athletic Foundation vote for National Champion.
The Badgers experienced great success during the 1950s, finishing in the AP Top 25 eight times that decade. In 1952, the team received its first #1 ranking by the Associated Press. That season, the Badgers again claimed the Big Ten title and earned their first trip to the Rose Bowl. There they were defeated 7–0 by the Southern California, and would finish the season ranked #11 in the AP. In 1954 after a 7-2 season Wisconsin's Alan Ameche became the first badger to win the Heisman Trophy. Wisconsin returned to the Rose Bowl as Big Ten Champions in 1959, but fell to the Washington Huskies, 44-8.
In 1962, the Badgers earned their eighth Big Ten title and faced the top-ranked USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl. Despite a narrow 42–37 defeat, the Badgers still ended the season ranked #2 in both the AP and Coaches polls (post-bowl rankings were not introduced until later in the decade).
Wisconsin football experienced little success for the remainder of the 1960s, reaching a low point with back-to-back winless seasons in 1967 and 1968. After languishing through the 1970s, the team had a string of seven-win seasons from 1981–84 under Dave McClain. During that time the Badgers played in the Garden State Bowl (1981), Independence Bowl (1982), and Hall of Fame Classic Bowl (1984). McClain's death during spring practice in 1986 sent the Badgers into free fall. From 1986 to 1990, the Badgers won a total of nine games.
Return to relevance with Alvarez era (1990–2005)
In 1990, Barry Alvarez became the head coach of the Badgers and, following three losing seasons (including a 1–10 campaign in his first year), Alvarez led the Badgers to their first Big Ten championship and first Rose Bowl appearance in over 30 years. On January 1, 1994 Wisconsin defeated UCLA 21–16 to claim its first Rose Bowl victory. Over his 16-year tenure as head coach, Alvarez led the Badgers to two more conference championships (one outright, one shared), eleven bowl games (going 8–3), two more Rose Bowl victories (1999 and 2000), and a #4 ranking in the final AP Poll of the '99 season.
Following the 2005 season, Alvarez resigned as headcoach in order to focus on his duties as athletic director, a position he had assumed in 2004. He named his defensive coordinator, Bret Bielema, as his successor. From 2006 to 2011, Bielema led the Badgers to six consecutive bowl appearances (going 2–4). In 2010, the Badgers won a share of the Big Ten Championship and returned to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2000. There they were defeated 21–19 by the #3 ranked TCU. In 2011, the Badgers were once again crowned Big Ten Champs when they defeated Michigan State in the first-ever conference championship game. The victory sent Wisconsin back to the Rose Bowl for a second consecutive year, where they were defeated by the Pac-12 champion Oregon Ducks, 38–45.
The 2012 season ended with the Badgers winning a third consecutive Big Ten title. Despite finishing with a 7-5 record and third in the Leaders Division, the Badgers advanced to the Big Ten Championship game by virtue of the fact that Penn State and Ohio State were ineligible for postseason play. A dominating rushing performance led Wisconsin to a 70-31 victory over #12 ranked Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship game. Only days later, Brett Bielema resigned to become the head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. Gary Andersen, formerly coach of Utah State University, was named head coach on December 19, 2012. Barry Alvarez named himself interim coach for the 2013 Rose Bowl, where the Badgers lost, 20-14 to Stanford.
This chart includes both the overall record the University of Wisconsin Badgers have with the all-time Big Ten members, as well as the matchups that counted in the Big Ten standings. Wisconsin has been a member of the Big Ten since its creation in 1896. Michigan rejoined the league in 1917 after leaving in 1906. Chicago withdrew after 1939, and then Michigan State (1953), Penn State (1993), and Nebraska (2011) joined afterwards. (As of December 1, 2013)
The UW-UM series is the nation’s most-played rivalry in Division I football and has been played continuously since 1907. Much prestige was always associated with the game, and the significance was emphasized with its place on the schedule. Between 1933 and 1982, the Wisconsin-Minnesota game was always the final regular-season contest for each school. The series took an added twist in 1948 when more than state bragging rights were on the line. After a 16-0 setback that season, the Wisconsin lettermen's group, the National 'W' Club, presented Minnesota with an axe wielded by Paul Bunyan. He was the mythical giant of Midwestern lumber camps. Each year since, the winner of the annual battle between the Big Ten rivals is presented with the axe, complete with scores inscribed on the handle, for display on its campus. Minnesota leads the series 58-57-8.
Iowa is Wisconsin's other arch rival. Although the rivalry started in 1894, the Heartland Trophy was inaugurated in 2004 and goes each year to the winner. The trophy was designed and crafted by artist and former Iowa football player Frank Strub. The trophy, which is a bull mounted on a walnut base (native to both Wisconsin and Iowa), has been inscribed with the scores of all games in the long-time series. With Big Ten expansion, the Wisconsin and Iowa football teams were placed in separate divisions, thus ending their annual rivalry. The teams now play each other four out of every ten years. However, with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, Iowa and Wisconsin will be placed back in the same division in 2014. Wisconsin leads the series at 43-42-2.
From 1904 to 1960 Wisconsin forged an intense rivalry with the Marquette Golden Avalanche. During this time these two schools were the only two Division I football in the state of Wisconsin (Marquette being located in Milwaukee). These two schools played every year from 1932 to 1960 until Marquette terminated their football program. The Badgers won the series record 32-4. Marquette no longer has a Division I football program.