- Wisconsin's defense is far from dominant, and an injured secondary spells bad news for the Badgers when they visit the Big House to face Michigan.
Wisconsin Badgers at Michigan Wolverines (-7.5)
Sat. 10/13, 7:30 p.m. ET
Three things to know before betting on Wisconsin-Michigan:
1. Much of Paul Chryst's time at Wisconsin has been defined by exceeding expectations against the spread. After going 6-7 ATS in 2015 in Chryst's first year as head coach, the Badgers went 9-4-1 in 2016 and 9-5 in '17, giving them a top-15 record against the spread in each of those seasons.
So when the Badgers were ranked No. 4 in this year's preseason AP Poll, it felt like they were finally getting some overdue respect. But based on how they've played this season, it's starting to seem like that respect came too late. The Badgers are ranked No. 15 in the country with a 4-1 record. But they lost 24-21 at home to BYU as 23.5-point favorites and own a 1-4 record against the spread. The most recent ATS loss came last weekend, when the Badgers allowed 518 yards of total offense to a dismal Nebraska team in a 41-24 road victory.
2. Wisconsin's defense has held the team back this season. Last season, the defense ranked third in the entire country in yards allowed per play (4.42). Through five games this season, they are ranked 100th in that category. The Badgers' 6.01 yards per play has come against an early-season schedule in which the best offense they've faced was New Mexico.
After strong performances in its first two games of the year, the Wisconsin D has backslid with each passing week. The Badgers allowed 6.1 yards per play in the loss to BYU three weeks ago, 7.48 yards per play in a 28-17 win at Iowa two weeks ago (as three-point favorites, their one ATS win of the season) and 7.62 yards per play to Nebraska.
The Badgers returned just four defensive starters this season, and injuries have exacerbated the problems. Starting cornerback Caesar Williams is listed as questionable for the Michigan game with a leg injury. Starting strong safety D'Cota Dixon (the unit's lone upperclassman) was in a walking boot on Monday after suffering a foot injury against Nebraska, and starting free safety Scott Nelson will miss the first half against Michigan after being ejected for targeting against the Cornhuskers. Backup CBs Deron Harrell and Travian Blaylock are also banged up.
It's tough timing for the Badgers, who will face the best passing attack they've seen all season. After a tough Wolverines debut against an elite Notre Dame defense, transfer quarterback Shea Patterson has been excellent for Michigan. He's second in the Big Ten in passer rating (160.7) and completion percentage (68.8%) and third in yards per attempt (8.6) and touchdown passes (10) while having thrown only three interceptions. Going against a depleted secondary and a Wisconsin pass rush that ranks 115th in FBS in sack rate (3.8%), Patterson will have the chance to do lots of damage at home on Saturday night.
3. The strength-on-strength matchup in this game will come when the Badgers have the ball and face Michigan's D. Unlike its defense, Wisconsin's offense has lived up to expectations this season. The Heisman hype has cooled around sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor, but he is still leading the nation with 25.2 carries per game and averaging 6.7 yards per carry despite the heavy workload. Taylor leads the country with 169.8 rushing yards per game. While he lacks Taylor's star power, Badgers QB Alex Hornibrook has also taken a significant step forward. Hornibrook has gone from being more of a game manager to being a QB whose 8.4 yards per attempt rank 34th in the country and fourth in the Big Ten, just behind Patterson.
But while Wisconsin's offense is good, Michigan's defense is great. The Wolverines lead all of FBS with 3.69 yards allowed per play and 230.5 yards allowed per game. The Wolverines are stifling against both the run (2.6 yards allowed per carry) and the pass (5.2 yards allowed per attempt). Hornibrook will be in for an especially challenging evening against a Michigan pass rush—led by future NFLers like Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich and Devin Bush—that is sacking opposing QBs on 12.8% of dropbacks (fifth in FBS).
The Wolverines are 3-3 against the spread this season, but are 3-1 ATS at home and +9.75 points per game against the spread in those four contests. Look for Michigan to break through with one of the biggest wins of the Jim Harbaugh era on Saturday night—and to do so emphatically.
Pick: Michigan -7.5
Confidence Level: High (on a scale of Low/Moderate/High/Very High/Extremely High)