I’m finding traditions to be one of the most fascinating elements of college football. In its early years, the college game was quite tribal. Teams would proudly represent the region they came from and the fact that most college towns were then and are now based in smaller cities added to the sense of belonging. It also enabled the beginnings of some enduring and hard-fought rivalries. The stories and rumours are often accentuated by the unusual trophies some of the teams compete for.
I wrote last week about Alabama-Georgia as a “modern classic” without a trophy. Well, unless you count various SEC and national championship battles of course. Those are pretty famous trophies.
As the Big Ten, one of the famous Power Five conferences, makes its belated bow this weekend, we get the chance to look at one of the most famous rivalries in college football. No.18 Michigan travels to Minneapolis to take on No.24 Minnesota. At stake will be an early advantage in the race for the Big Ten title. Also at stake, temporary ownership of The Little Brown Jug, for the winner of the oldest trophy game in college football.
Although they first met in 1892, the rivalry stepped up a notch after the 1903 game between the Michigan Wolverines and Minnesota Golden Gophers. Both teams went into the Minneapolis game unbeaten. Minnesota were 10-0 and Michigan hadn’t lost in 29 games.
There are several rumours surrounding the origination of the Little Brown Jug. College football is synonymous with pranks. Fire alarms being set off in opposing team hotels, shutting off hot water for cold and so on. Concerned that Minnesota might not provide clean drinking water for the game, Michigan head coach Fielding Yost ordered the purchase of a water jug that would ensure his players had untainted water to drink. A five-gallon stoneware jug was duly purchased for 30 cents.
The game itself ended in a gruelling 6-6 draw and Michigan headed back on the train. The University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library wrote that: “The 1903 game was so physical and brutal that the two teams would not agree to play each other again for another six years”.
What happened to the little brown jug?
The jug was left behind and found by Oscar Munson, Minnesota’s equipment manager. He painted the jug with the score on one side (Minnesota’s 6 being much larger than Michigan’s 6) and wrote “Michigan Jug – Captured by Oscar, October 31, 1903”. Rumours differ on what happened next. One suggests that Yost wrote to Minnesota asking for the jug to be returned and was told “you’ll have to come up and win it.” Another says that Yost didn’t recognise the jug when he saw it on Michigan’s next visit in 1909. Minnesota head coach L.J. Cooke showed him and suggested that playing for the jug could start a great tradition. Michigan duly won 15-6 and were presented with the jug they had lost by the Minnesota team, with the score painted on the jug.
The two Big ten powerhouses have shared 18 national titles and four Heisman trophy winners – the last being Michigan’s Charles Woodson in 1997. Marion Barber, Karl Mecklenburg and Antoine Winfield Jr are some of the most famous alumni from Minnesota. Woodson, Tom Brady and head coach Jim Harbaugh are amongst many notable Wolverines legends to have made their mark after leaving Ann Arbor.
Whilst both teams have some exciting playmakers, this battle could be won in the trenches. Michigan has a talented, yet inexperienced offensive line protecting an inexperienced quarterback. Four starters, including New Orleans Saint Cesar Ruiz, needed to be replaced on the offensive line. Joe Milton looks to have won the QB battle with Dylan McCaffrey, younger brother of Panthers’ NFL star Christian. Milton is a 6’5, 245lb dual threat with a strong arm and a better runner than last year’s starter Shea Patterson. He has the potential to excite but also turn the ball over, throwing two interceptions in eleven passes during brief cameos last season. Wide receiver Nico Williams’ decision will hurt the offense but Ronnie Bell and Giles Jackson should make big impacts. Sophomores Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins are a good one-two punch running the ball.
The Wolverines’ defensive side looks solid although they lost a number of starters too and will need to develop their young talent. Linebacker Cam McGrone and safety Daxton Hill will be ones to watch.
The Gophers started 9-0 last year and won 11 games, their best season in years. Despite losing some talent across the team, the Golden Gophers return all five of their offensive line starters. This gives their talented quarterback Tanner Morgan a real platform to wreak havoc. Morgan is an underrated field general who threw for 30 touchdowns and 3,523 yards last season, all school records. It doesn’t hurt that he has the outstanding Rashod Bateman to throw to. Owain Jones has written an excellent scouting report on Bateman, who could be a first round draft pick in April. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim adds real balance to a threatening Minnesota offense.
The Golden Gophers’ defense is weaker up front although they do have Micah Dew-Treadway returning and a strong secondary including cornerbacks Coney Durr and Benjamin St-Juste. They will look to unsettle Michigan’s quarterback Milton and pick him off.
My Little Brown Jug game prediction
Michigan have dominated this rivalry in recent years, having won 24 of the last 26 meetings. They are unbeaten in Minneapolis since 1977. This season has thrown up some surprises though. Last weekend, South Carolina beat Auburn for the first time since 1933, Kentucky recorded their first win at Tennessee since 1984 and Memphis recorded their first win vs. UCF in 30 years.
I’ll take Minnesota to continue the upset trend with a close home win, ending a 43 year home losing streak.
Michigan 24-35 Minnesota.
Banner image from the blade