Hawkeyes, Badgers earn right to be hyped

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The national spotlight will shine brightest in Dallas and South Bend this week, but quite a few eyes and ears will be tuned to what happens Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.

The Iowa-Wisconsin matchup means something, and not just to the two rivals competing for the Heartland Trophy. It means a lot in the Big Ten title race, and possibly the national title chase, given Iowa's unblemished record. Granted, we'll hear the standard storylines all week (Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema facing his alma mater, border battle, homecoming in Madison, etc.), but the matchup has bigger-picture implications.

Back in the preseason, a marquee matchup seemed unlikely as both teams dealt with major concerns.

Wisconsin entered August without a starting quarterback -- again. The Badgers were banged up along the offensive line and had major questions at linebacker after losing DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas. Running back John Clay, a projected star, didn't have the offseason many had hoped for and slipped behind Zach Brown on the depth chart. Dark horse quarterback candidate Scott Tolzien emerged as a surprise starter. Veteran safeties Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant were indefinitely suspended. Bielema showed up on lists of coaches on the hot seat, even though his job was never in serious jeopardy.

Iowa, meanwhile, endured arguably the worst preseason of any Big Ten team. Hawkeyes running back Jewel Hampton, the projected successor to Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene, couldn't recover from a knee injury and had to be shut down for the season. Injuries also hit the wide receiving corps hard. Things still looked bleak after the season began, as Iowa barely survived its opener against Northern Iowa and lost more standout players (left tackle Bryan Bulaga, tight end Tony Moeaki, wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos) to injuries.

The fortunes have changed for both teams heading into Saturday's matchup (ESPN, noon ET).

Iowa is 6-0 for the first time since 1985, a season that resulted in a Big Ten championship and a trip to Pasadena. The Hawkeyes own the nation's second-longest win streak (10) and the longest in head coach Kirk Ferentz's tenure. They're tied for second nationally in takeaways (19) and rank 20th in points allowed (15.8 ppg). The defensive line has been fabulous, and quarterback Ricky Stanzi continues to show resiliency despite some troubling miscues. Perhaps most important, Iowa has maintained its poise in close games, winning three by a combined six points.

"This year's team just has that air about them," running back Adam Robinson said. "Everybody wants to win when it's crunch time. We just have that no-quit attitude."

Wisconsin continues to sniff the national rankings despite a loss to Ohio State that in many ways validated the team's 5-0 start. The Badgers boast the Big Ten's most balanced offense and a defense that ranks third in the league in takeaways (16). Tolzien has emerged as the answer at quarterback, and Clay re-established himself as the team's top back with big performances against Michigan State and Minnesota. Senior end O'Brien Schofield has been the Big Ten's best defensive lineman this season, leading the nation in tackles for loss (2.42 per game). Defenders like Mike Taylor, Chris Maragos and Chris Borland have emerged as surprise stars.

If Wisconsin had translated a strong game plan into more points and fewer mistakes in Columbus, Saturday's matchup would pair two undefeated teams. Would that take the spotlight away from Texas-Oklahoma or USC-Notre Dame? Hard to tell.

But the Badgers and the Hawkeyes still deserve your attention.