Losses to open Big Ten play last week have sapped excitement from the bids of Wisconsin and Nebraska to win the West Division, creating a must-win feel for both teams ahead of the Badgers' visit to Lincoln on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2).
We've heard all week of the reasons this may not be the year for these tradition-rich programs. Well, after Week 6, either Wisconsin or Nebraska will remain very much alive in the West.
Feeling down about this matchup? Here are five good reasons to pay attention:
The history: In 1965, when Barry Alvarez was a sophomore linebacker at Nebraska, and over the next nine years, the Huskers beat Wisconsin in three of four meetings. Since, the Badgers have flipped the storyline, with three wins in four Big Ten games by an average margin of 35 points. Forget about the Freedom Trophy, Nebraska is playing to reclaim its dignity after Wisconsin shook off a two-touchdown deficit en route to 581 rushing yards in a 59-24 win last year. The Huskers did win in Lincoln three years ago, coming back from 17 points down to equal the second-largest comeback in school history.
Key numbers: These programs are not accustomed to losing in bunches. The last three times Wisconsin lost its league opener, it has rebounded to win a division title (2014) or a conference crown (2010 and 2012). Interestingly, the Badgers have lost five consecutive road openers in Big Ten play and nine of their past 10. Nebraska, meanwhile, is 12-4 in Big Ten home games since it joined the league in 2011 but until this year had not started a season with three losses in five games since 1959. The Badgers and opponents to come over the next seven weeks, in particular at Memorial Stadium, figure to test the Huskers' mettle. After Wisconsin, Nebraska's home schedule features Northwestern, Michigan State and Iowa, who are a combined 15-0 and all ranked nationally, at Memorial Stadium. In the four home games, ESPN's Football Power Index favors Nebraska against the Hawkeyes and Wildcats.
Walking wounded: In step with other high-profile programs, Wisconsin and Nebraska have been hit hard by injuries. Their ability to respond will continue to shape this season for both. The Badgers remain without running back Corey Clement, expected to serve as the focal point of their offense, offensive lineman Ray Ball and tight end Austin Traylor. Top receiver Alex Erickson appears unlikely to play Saturday while recovering from a concussion, and offensive linemen Hayden Biegel and Beau Benzschawel are questionable. Defensively, Nebraska isn't doing much better. Tackles Kevin Williams and Kevin Maurice and end Freedom Adkinmoladun are out, along with linebackers Michael Rose-Ivey and Josh Banderas. Tackle Vincent Valentine, who hasn't played since Sept. 12, is nearing a return.
To run or pass, that is the question: Nebraska's defensive strength appears to match well against the Badgers. The Huskers ranks 12th nationally against the run and allow a Power 5-best 2.2 yards per carry on rushes outside the tackles. Sounds good, right? After all, Wisconsin historically leans on the ground game, rushing for more than 200 yards in every season since 2006. Not this year, though. The Badgers average 167.8 rushing yards and just 3.6 ground gains of 10 yards or more per game -- down from 8.5 a year ago. QB Joel Stave is the league's fourth-most productive passer. Despite the injuries, if the Badgers find a few guys to catch the football, they may just be free among the Nebraska secondary, which sits last nationally in pass defense, allowing 353.8 yards per game.
The coaching connection: The Paul Chryst-Mike Riley relationship dates to 1991, when Riley hired Chryst as an offensive assistant in the World League after the former Wisconsin quarterback impressed Riley at a coaches' convention. They worked together during two stints at Oregon State and for Riley's three-year run as coach of the San Diego Chargers. Chryst and Riley remain close friends and often reconnect in the offseason. Then, of course, Riley's arrival at Nebraska paved a trail for Chryst to land the Wisconsin job after Gary Andersen left Madison to fill Riley's former post in the Pac-12. Few coaches know Riley better than Chryst. Asked this week about the Huskers' difficult first month, Chryst expressed confidence in his former mentor. "I've been in tough situations with him," the Wisconsin coach said, "and quite honestly, I think that's when he's at his best."