IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) In just three weeks, Wisconsin might go from being the toast of the Big Ten West to, well, toast in the Big Ten West.
The 10th-ranked Badgers (4-2, 1-2) earned the nation's respect after close losses to Michigan and Ohio State, dropping just two spots in this week's poll. And yet a loss on Saturday at unranked Iowa (5-2, 3-1) would put the Badgers three back of the Hawkeyes in the win column with just five games left.
There's also No. 8 Nebraska (6-0, 3-0), which hosts a Purdue team that just fired its coach on Saturday before it visits Wisconsin next week.
The Badgers might prove to be the best overall team in the West. They might also be out of the division title chase before Halloween.
''For us to be the best, we have to keep improving each week. That's the (halfway) report,'' Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said.
Iowa was supposed to be the team that everyone one in the West was looking up at by now.
Instead, the Hawkeyes are eager to prove they're a real division contender again.
Iowa rallied from two losses in three games with a tight win at Minnesota on Oct. 8. Last week, they sealed Boilermakers coach Darrell Hazell's demise with a 49-35 win that included three late and largely meaningless Purdue touchdowns.
Here are the factors that could decide things on Saturday when Iowa and Wisconsin renew acquaintances in Iowa City:
SCOUTING THE HAWKEYES
Purdue's late rally obscured the fact that the Hawkeyes have been much better defensively in recent weeks. On offense, Iowa has a pair of dangerous backs on pace for 1,000-yard seasons in LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley. Quarterback C.J. Beathard hasn't put up great numbers, largely because the Hawkeyes receivers have lacked the ability to separate from defensive backs. Still, Beathard is completing 60 percent of his passes and has 11 TDs against just four picks.
Wisconsin's defense has been spectacular all season. The Badgers are ninth nationally in points allowed per game at 15.2, despite the fact that they've already faced LSU and the Wolverines and Buckeyes. Iowa is 21st in the country with just 19.2 points allowed per game and has let up seven points or less three times this season. ''In games like this typically, little things are really going to matter - and they're good at little things. So if we're going to want to be in this ballgame, we're going to have to do that a little bit better, too, and really be detailed because it's going to be tough,'' Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
CICHY'S THE MAN
Wisconsin junior linebacker was named the Big Ten's defensive player of the week on Monday after making 15 tackles, including 3.5 for a loss, and forcing a fumble against the Buckeyes. He and fellow linebacker T.J. Watt might prove to be a handful for an offensive line that could be without starters Cole Croston and Boone Myers.
The visiting team has won the last five meetings in this series dating back to 2009. Iowa last hosted Wisconsin in 2014, when it also had control of its own destiny in the Big Ten West. But Melvin Gordon had 200 yards and a pair of touchdowns as the Badgers rallied for a 26-24 win.
HE SAID IT
''I don't want to be Dr. Doom here. I think he's got a chance,'' Ferentz on tight end George Kittle, who is questionable for Saturday's game with a foot injury.