The brutal stretch in the middle of the toughest schedule in the conference was supposed to be Wisconsin’s undoing. Instead, it’s turned the Badgers into perhaps the most fascinating, entertaining team in the Big Ten.
There have been significant injuries and controversies at quarterback. Upsets and nail-biting battles with undefeated teams, too. The Badgers have overpowered a couple of opponents and survived a slugfest or two.
Through it all, Wisconsin has somehow survived to remain in position to win the Big Ten West and potentially even entertain thoughts of heading to the College Football Playoff if enough breaks fall its way. And with another unbeaten, top-10 opponent coming to town on Saturday, the Badgers still aren’t even done with the heavy lifting as Nebraska pays a visit to Camp Randall.
“What’s great about sports is you’ve got to keep doing it,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “That doesn’t guarantee anything going forward.
“We’ve got a heck of a challenge this week. But if our guys keep maximizing the week, day by day, it will give us a chance. We’re looking forward to it.”
Chryst could pretty much play those comments on a loop every week since those tough tests have popped up every Saturday for more than a month now. At the start of the season, the road trip to Michigan State was considered the point where things might get tricky for the Badgers, and last week’s road trip to Iowa was considered the end.
But the struggles of the Spartans and the rise of the Huskers have certainly shifted that since the preseason, and even next week’s trip to Northwestern looks more difficult than it might have in September. But particularly since the Badgers keep handling the adversity so well, all they’ve done is ensure that the spotlight continues shining on them. And once more, their game shouldn’t be missed this weekend.
Bounce-back Buckeyes?: In the big picture, the upset loss to Penn State didn’t do much to significantly hurt Ohio State’s chances of winning the Big Ten or going to the College Football Playoff. Yes, the margin for error is gone. No, the Buckeyes don’t completely control their destiny at the moment thanks to the tiebreaker in the East Division. But there’s a reason Ohio State is still a betting favorite to make the four-team field and beat Michigan next month, and it’s not just all the talent Urban Meyer has stockpiled. Throughout his career, Meyer has shown a remarkable ability to get his team’s attention after a loss, dropping consecutive games just four times in 15 years. And all three of his national-title-winning teams have suffered a loss in the regular season -- including the Buckeyes two years ago. Can they bounce back this week against Northwestern? History is on Ohio State’s side.
Bunyan Battle: The botched punt and bonkers ending was only a year ago, but it feels like it could have been decades given how little attention both Michigan and Michigan State have seemed to pay to it this week. Even much of the standby “big brother” rivalry talk doesn’t feel quite as heated given the stunning slide of the Spartans and what has almost been a foregone conclusion that the unbeaten Wolverines will roll on Saturday. But crazy things happen when there are trophies on the line, and there’s pretty much no outcome when these two programs get together that won’t provide some measure of entertainment.
The outside speculation still hasn’t died down about his future with the program, but coach Tracy Claeys has done just about everything he can at this point to prove he isn’t just a caretaker leading Minnesota. The Gophers have a difficult three-game stretch waiting for them at the end of November, but Claeys can clinch a bowl bid before October is even over by taking care of business on the road against struggling Illinois this weekend. That doesn’t exactly mean anything else after that would be gravy, but locking up a trip to the postseason this early could silence a few remaining skeptics.
The true test of Penn State’s staying power in the East race isn’t likely to come on Saturday at Purdue. But all that positive momentum can come unraveled in a hurry if the Nittany Lions spend too much time reveling in the win over the Buckeyes instead of focusing on the Boilermakers -- who have nothing to lose and gave Nebraska a tougher-than-expected test last Saturday.
Maryland is also in position to lock up a spot in the postseason if it can beat Indiana. And that bowl bid wouldn’t just be surprising because of how early it was earned, but that the Terrapins got to that threshold at all after last season’s disaster. Coach DJ Durkin has done a fantastic job in his first season, and he’ll have other shots to get win No. 6 -- most notably a home date with Rutgers. But with Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska on deck, it might be a good idea for Maryland to get that sixth win out of the way now.