Wisconsin is the team with the Big Ten’s best shot at claiming one of the four spots in the College Football Playoff.
It’s why the rest of the league should be rooting for the Badgers to finish the regular season strong and then prevail in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis on Dec. 2, likely against Ohio State.
That might not be as easy as it sounds for Paul Chryst’s team, which is currently No. 5 in the CFP rankings. First up for the Badgers is Saturday’s home game against Michigan (8-2 overall, 5-2 Big Ten). Then here will be a minor road test at Minnesota (5-5, 2-5).
Win one, Wisconsin earns a trip to Indianapolis. Win both, the Badgers just might find themselves among the select four teams even before we get to the conference championship games.
As much as Ohio State fans would like to believe the Buckeyes can leapfrog the Badgers by winning the league title, there are too many other variables in play. In my opinion, the odds would be more in favor of either the ACC or SEC getting two teams into the final four.
Ohio State, after all, is currently only No. 9 in the CFP rankings and also still has to get past what should be a difficult road test at Michigan next Saturday.
Meanwhile, the ACC already set a collision course in Charlotte between No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Miami. If that ACC title game is close, it wouldn’t be that surprising for both teams to advance to a possible rematch.
Meanwhile, the SEC has Alabama at No. 1 and Auburn at No. 6. If Gus Malzahn’s team wins the Iron Bowl against Nick Saban’s squad next week and goes on to win the SEC title, it’s possible the CFP committee could still consider a one-loss Crimson Tide better than an unbeaten Wisconsin.
And if Ohio State should beat Wisconsin? It could cost the Big Ten any chance of one of its teams playing for the national title.
So what does Wisconsin have to do Saturday against Michigan to remain on the unbeaten path?
Simple. Just continue to grind out the yardage on the ground and play another stingy defensive game.
Wisconsin hasn’t surrendered more than two touchdowns in any game other than its 33-24 win over Northwestern on Sept. 30.
The Badgers lead the nation in total defense (246.7 yards per game) and are No. 3 in scoring defense (13.4 points per game). Chryst’s squad isn’t shabby on offense, either. The Badgers are No. 24 in scoring offense (36.8) and No. 37 in total offense (433.1). They also have one of the Big Ten’s best rushing attacks with freshman Jonathan Taylor leading the league with 1,525 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Michigan’s best chance is to convert off turnovers. Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornbrook has been interception prone of late, including tossing a pair of picks that were returned for TD’s last week against Iowa.
Those were all the points the Hawkeyes scored in a 38-14 loss.
The Badgers are just as capable of making huge defensive plays, having returned four of 15 interceptions for scores. So redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters will have to maintain his composure against a fierce pass rush by Wisconsin.
But in his two starts, Peters led the Wolverines to a pair of wins, 33-10 over Minnesota and 35-10 at Maryland. That’s enough to impress Chryst, whose team lost 14-7 at Michigan last year.
“It helps that he’s complementing their offense and making good decisions with the ball,” Chryst said of Peters. “If you try and stop the run too much, they can hurt you through the air.”
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
(All times Central)
Rutgers (4-6) at Indiana (4-6), Saturday 11 a.m. CT, BTN
Minnesota (5-5) at Northwestern (7-3), Saturday 11 a.m. CT, BTN
Michigan (8-2) at Wisconsin (10-0), Saturday 11 a.m. CT, Fox
Illinois (2-8) at Ohio State (8-2), Saturday 2:30 p.m. CT, ABC
Purdue (4-6) at Iowa (6-4), Saturday 2:30 p.m. CT, BTN
Maryland (4-6) at Michigan State (7-3), Saturday 3 p.m. CT, Fox
Nebraska (4-6) at Penn State (8-2), Saturday 3 p.m. CT, FS1
- Wisconsin (10-0, 7-0): Last Week – W, Iowa, 38-14. The Impact – The Badgers overpowered Hawkeyes with a stifling defense that allowed only 66 total yards, including 25 yards rushing on 26 carries. Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s offense “allowed” 95 yards on pair of interception returns by Iowa’s Josh Jackson.
- Ohio State (8-2, 6-1): Last Week – W, Michigan State, 48-3. The Impact – Urban Meyer’s team regained control of Big Ten East with J.T. Barrett throwing two TD passes and running for two more scores while leading Buckeyes to 524 yards of offense. If they win out, they can still play for conference title.
- Penn State (8-2, 5-2):Last Week – Rutgers, 35-6. The Impact – Saquon Barkley’s Heisman campaign has grounded to a halt after being held to 35 yards rushing. He’s had fewer than 100 yards rushing in seven games this season, including last three contests. Meanwhile, QB Trace McSorely is now Nittany Lions’ all-time touchdown leader with 68.
- Northwestern (7-3, 5-2): Last Week – W, Purdue, 23-13. The Impact – Wildcats won their fifth game in a row and also avoided overtime for first time in a month. With winnable games against Minnesota at home and Illinois on road, Pat Fitzgerald’s team could finish with nine wins after 2-3 start to season.
- Michigan State (7-3, 5-2): Last Week – L, at Ohio State, 48-3. The Impact – Spartans had only 195 yards of offense, including 64 rushing, while surrendering three turnovers and six sacks. Meanwhile, MSU defense allowed 193 yards on six touchdown plays by Buckeyes.
6. Michigan (8-2, 5-2): Last Week – W, Maryland, 35-10. The Impact – Wolverines still looking for a signature win heading into clash at unbeaten Wisconsin. Jim Harbaugh’s team then finishes against Ohio State, meaning Wolverines could play both Big Ten Championship contenders.
.7. Iowa (6-4, 3-4): Last Week – L, at Wisconsin, 38-14. The Impact – In last two weeks, Josh Jackson has made five interceptions, a school record three in a game against Ohio State and a pair of Pick-6 returns against Wisconsin. He leads the nation with seven interceptions and total 23 passes defended.
8. Minnesota (5-5, 2-5): Last Week – W, Nebraksa, 54-21.The Impact – Gophers need to use highlights of rout of Nebraska in recruiting DVD. QB Demry Croft rushed for 183 yards and three touchdowns, including runs of 73 and 64 yars. Plus, Rodney Smith had 134 yards rushing while also returning a kickoff all the way for a score. Alas, Gophers may wish they could have saved some of those big plays and points for this week.
9. Nebraska (4-6, 3-4): Last Week – L, at Minnesota, 54-21. The Impact – Mike Riley appears headed into his final days with Cornhuskers seemingly doomed to their worst season in 57 years. Sophomore QB sat out second half against Gophers under concussion protocols.
10. Indiana (4-6, 1-6): Last Week – W, at Illinois, 24-14. The Impact – It was a memorable day for football-minded Hoosiers as Tom Allen got his first Big Ten win, which also happened to be Hoosiers first conference win of season. Now all they have to do is win two more to salvage season with a bowl berth.
11. Rutgers (4-6, 3-4): Last Week – L, at Penn State, 35-6. The Impact – Scarlet Knights trailed by only eight points at half, but in second half they were shut out and didn’t have a first down until their final drive despite finishing game with 157 yards rushing.
12. Purdue (4-6, 2-5): Last Week – L, at Northwestern, 23-13. The Impact – Sophomore Elijah Sidelar passed for 376 yards and two touchdowns but Boilermakers were stopped on three fourth-and-shorts, including one from the 4-yard line when they were trailing only 7-0. Jeff Brohm’s squad still has shot at qualifying for first bowl game in four years.
13. Maryland (4-6, 2-5): Last Week – L, Michigan, 35-10.The Impact – Having to start his fourth different quarterback because of injuries, D.J. Durkin’s Terps are headed to another losing season. And unlike last year, it won’t end with a bowl game. Ty Johnson surpassed 2,000 yards rushing in career with 67 on 12 carries against Michigan.
14. Illinois (2-8, 0-7): Last Week – L, Indiana, 24-14. The Impact – Lovie Smith’s worst record as an NFL head coach was 2-14 in 2014 with Tampa Bay. In two seasons with Illini, he’s headed to a 2-16 record in the Big Ten after two seasons. With Ohio State this week and Northwestern next Saturday, the Illini are headed to winless conference season
(Projected winners in bold caps)
Rutgers at INDIANA
Minnesota at NORTHWESTERN
Michigan at WISCONSIN
Illinois at OHIO STATE
Purdue at IOWA
Maryland at MICHIGAN STATE
Nebraska at PENN STATE
Last Week: 6-1
Overall: 66-19 (77.6)
Note: Each week during the college football season, I’ll be updating how things are unfolding in the Big Ten by Wednesday,