My take on Saturday’s game of the week in college football, plus the action involving the locals:
NO. 24 MICHIGAN AT NO. 5 WISCONSIN
The facts: 11 a.m., Fox-32.
The records: Michigan 8-2, 5-2 Big Ten; Wisconsin 10-0, 7-0.
The line: Wisconsin by 7½.
Greenberg’s pick: Wisconsin, 20-16.
Five-plus years ago, when Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez reached a home-and-home agreement with BYU for meetings in 2017 and 2018, the Cougars had won 60 games — a big-time average of 10 a pop — over the previous six seasons.
The ’17 contest in Provo loomed as a stern challenge, to be sure. As it turns out, the Cougars — who lost 40-6 to Wisconsin in September — are a sad-sack 3-8 and a blight on perhaps the most suspect résumé an unbeaten Power 5 team has had this late in a season during the College Football Playoff era.
Such is the story of the “haven’t beaten anybody” Badgers. So far, that is. A victory over Michigan at Camp Randall Stadium would do a lot to move a playoff narrative along.
The biggest playoff-related question these days: Would a 13-0 Wisconsin team make it into the field of four? It remains uncertain, no matter what anyone in Big Ten country is saying to the contrary.
Scenario: Clemson or Miami wins out, giving the ACC a slam-dunk entry. Oklahoma wins out, giving the Big 12 a slam-dunk entry. One-loss Georgia edges unbeaten Alabama in an SEC title game for the ages, giving us … well, what?
Hello, Badgers, and bye-bye, Crimson Tide? The best you’re getting from me is a tepid maybe.
Alvarez, who was an influential member of the selection committee for the first three years of the playoff, told ESPN last week that omitting a Badgers team riding high at 13-0 would be “very difficult to do.”
“There’s no part of me that says if you go undefeated as a Power 5 and win your conference championship, and you’re not going to be in the final four?” he said. “I don’t see that. That would shock me.”
Alabama being left on the cutting-room floor would be shocking, too. It hasn’t happened in any playoff yet.
At least Wisconsin gets a second chance in a row to buff and shine its reputation. Last weekend’s shutout of Iowa’s offense — with the Hawkeyes coming off a blowout victory over Ohio State — was compelling. The Wolverines aren’t playoff contenders, but they’re name-brand opponents with a superstar coach in Jim Harbaugh.
Both teams sure can bring the thunder on defense. Wisconsin is first in the country in total defense, allowing 247.7 yards a game. Michigan is third (254.8), a notch behind Alabama.
“They’re strong,” Badgers coach Paul Chryst said of Harbaugh’s unit. “They are really good players, and it’s a really good scheme. And I think they know it.”
Wisconsin also leads the nation in rushing defense (81.5), with Michigan ninth (110.3). That strongly suggests both quarterbacks — Badgers sophomore Alex Hornibrook and Wolverines freshman Brandon Peters — will be on the spot to deliver in the passing game. Yet that’s also where things could get gnarly.
The Badgers are decimated by injuries at wide receiver, while the Wolverines have no one at the position who has distinguished himself. And both teams are among the best in the country at rushing the passer. Wisconsin, led by Garret Dooley and Alec James, is ranked fourth in sacks (3.5 a game). Michigan, with Chase Winovich and Devin Bush Jr. looking for trouble, is tied for sixth (3.3).
Playoff talk? Maybe it’s too soon for that. The Badgers had better have all their eggs in the surviving-Week-12 basket.
MINNESOTA AT NO. 25 NORTHWESTERN
The facts: 11 a.m., BTN, 720-AM.
The records: Minnesota 5-5, 2-5 Big Ten; Northwestern 7-3, 5-2 Big Ten.
The storyline: At least the Wildcats are in the playoff committee’s rankings, albeit all the way down at 25. They aren’t in the media’s or coaches’ top 25 at all, which is a bit curious given their five-game winning streak. Six other three-loss squads were ranked this week by both the media and the coaches, but none of the six is on a streak of more than two victories. Aren’t these polls supposed to be more current than that? But I digress. Here comes Minnesota, owner of one of the worst passing offenses in the country. The Gophers have an atrocious completion percentage of 43.9 against Big Ten defenses and are connecting on only seven passes per game in November. The Wildcats can load up against the run without worrying much about the consequences.
The line: Wildcats by 7.
Greenberg’s pick: Northwestern, 27-17.
ILLINOIS AT NO. 9 OHIO STATE
The facts: 2:30 p.m., Ch. 7, 670-AM.
The records: Illinois 2-8, 0-7 Big Ten; Ohio State 8-2, 6-1 Big Ten.
The storyline: It’s called the Illibuck trophy, and, well, Ohio State claims it basically every time these teams face each other. News alert: It’s going to happen again. Illinois’ last victory in this series came in 2007, the only time in 11 meetings things haven’t gone the Buckeyes’ way. The last three meetings in Columbus were decided by a teeny-tiny total of 101 points. Ah, well, shall we discuss the particulars? There really isn’t much to say. Ask Michigan State, destroyed last weekend in a key Big Ten East showdown, how well the Buckeyes run the ball when that’s what they’re inclined to do. The Illini play more freshmen than anyone, but OSU running back J.K. Dobbins is the freshman to watch in this one. About the point spread: Come on, 41? That’s crazy talk.
The line: Buckeyes by 41.
Greenberg’s pick: Ohio State, 40-0.
NAVY AT NO. 8 NOTRE DAME
The facts: 2:30 p.m., Ch. 5, 1000-AM.
The records: Navy 6-3, 4-3 American; Notre Dame 8-2.
The storyline: Can we agree that the Irish — although technically still in the hunt for the playoff — have missed their chance to compete in the final four? A New Year’s Six bowl is a far more realistic aim, and certainly nothing for which to apologize. Irish coach Brian Kelly has been given a lot of credit for this season’s turnaround, but let’s see how well he has his team prepared to play on the heels of a nightmarish trip to Miami. If Kelly’s defense isn’t laser-focused, it’ll have a tough time dealing with Navy’s famously productive running game. Don’t forget that the Middies won last year’s meeting by a point after a controversial decision by Kelly, who opted for a short field goal with his team down 28-24 and seven minutes left to play. That ended a five-game winning streak in the series for the Irish.
The line: Irish by 18.
Greenberg’s pick: Notre Dame, 37-24.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.