Michigan-Wisconsin Is a Sneaky Playoff Eliminator

In this Big Ten clash, the winner gets the credit of beating a top-15 team and stays alive in the conference and the playoff race, while the loser drops a few spots and is doubtful to play more than one game in late December.
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This weekend, the country’s No. 12 team faces off against No. 15, which might be a marginally bigger deal if the names weren’t attached. Once you see it’s Michigan vs. Wisconsin, you remember Notre Dame and BYU, the teams who dealt the Wolverines and Badgers early-season losses that felt catastrophic at the time. For most of the past month it was safe to say this matchup had lost some luster from its preseason hype levels, but consider Saturday night’s game in a more immediate context: two top-15 teams still quietly have a shot at division and conference titles. Both have rebounded admirably from their early non-conference stumbles, meaning that Saturday’s game may ultimately have equally significant consequences as Ohio State–Penn State did two weeks ago.

I know, I know. This College GameDay showcase does not have the panache of two undefeated, top-10 teams on paper, and especially not when we consider the recent history of Wisconsin and Michigan—always, it seems, near the top of the Big Ten, but only rarely able to clear the final hurdle. The Big Ten seems perpetually to be Ohio State’s to lose. And that’s fine, that perception, but don’t let it take away from the fact that Saturday’s game could have far-reaching implications.

Sure, each team has a long road to the College Football Playoff. Wisconsin would have to win Saturday, then win out (which would include a victory over Penn State) and finally beat Ohio State (the most likely cross-divisional opponent) in the Big Ten championship game. Even then, it could miss the final four, dragged down by BYU’s return to Earth. Michigan controls its destiny in the Big Ten East, but it still has to beat Penn State and Ohio State, which has famously been a tall task for Harbaugh.

Plus, consider this: In 2014, the national champion Buckeyes’ only loss was in a nonconference game, in Week 2 to Virginia Tech. After that setback, they dropped to No. 22 in the AP Poll, and by this point that season, they had only clawed their way back to No. 13. It sounds a lot like ... both of these teams, actually, which have seen their rankings nosedive and then slowly rebound with better play and more distance from losses that in one case (Michigan’s) seem respectable and in another (Wisconsin’s) seems fluky. Which caveat is better? It’s hard to say, and that debate is still a ways off.

Both teams sit at 5–1, with more reliable defenses than offenses and starting quarterbacks who may not have yet realized their full potential. The Wolverines named Shea Patterson the job coming out of fall camp and have averaged 38.2 points, 220.8 passing yards and 199.8 rushing yards per game. One state to the west, the Badgers and third-year starter Alex Hornibrook are averaging 33.8 points, 193.2 passing yards and 287 rushing yards per game—but most notably, Hornibrook has tossed seven touchdowns to just two interceptions, and he’s on pace for a marked improvement upon the 15 interceptions (to go along with 25 touchdown passes) he threw last year. Defensively, both teams can count themselves among the country’s best. Wisconsin is allowing opponents just 16.4 points per game; Michigan has been only slightly better, limiting opponents to just 15.8 points per game.

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This game could come down to timing, and that’s looking a lot like it’s swinging in Michigan’s favor. Patterson seems to be settling in: In last week’s 42–21 win over Maryland, he posted his best stat line of the year: 19 of 27 for 282 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, with a completion percentage—70.4%—that was only his third-best of the year. According to STATS, only four Power 5 quarterbacks have more games in which they’ve completed more than 70% of their passes (with 15 or more attempts) than Patterson: Georgia’s Jake Fromm, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, Colorado’s Steven Montez and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray.

If Patterson is coming into his own, it’s at the exact wrong time for Wisconsin. The Badgers paid a price for their 41–24 win over Nebraska last week: Safety D’Cota Dixon hurt his foot late in the game, cornerback Faion Hicks has been playing through a thumb injury, cornerback Deron Harrell left with a head injury, and safety Scott Nelson was tossed for targeting. Cornerbacks Travion Blaylock and Caesar Williams missed the entire game with leg injuries, and both are questionable for Saturday, as is Harrell; Nelson will miss the game’s first half with the carryover of that targeting penalty. That’s all to say: Patterson may not be getting the Badgers at full strength, and Michigan should look to take advantage.

And yet, the banged-up Badgers still won by more than two touchdowns. If Hornibrook plays a steady game, the Wisconsin offense could run all over Michigan. Lead back Jonathan Taylor had 221 yards against the Cornhuskers, averaging 9.2 yards per carry, and the Badgers had two other backs, Taiwan Deal and Garrett Groshek, with more than 70 yards on the ground. Even if the Badgers can’t count on that kind of production every week, they can count on Taylor for triple-digit yards; his worst performance of the season came in Week 5 at Iowa, where he racked up 113 yards against one of the country’s best defenses. The Wolverines, who have the nation’s sixth-best rushing defenses, will be a similar test. Only two schools (Michigan State and San Diego State) are allowing fewer yards per carry than the paltry 2.6 Michigan has averaged.

If both teams look like their resurgent selves, this game will rest in large part on Taylor’s shoulders. He’s the best back the Wolverines’ front has seen this year, and that front is likewise the most talented he’s seen.

For now, this is something of a zero-sum game: the winner gets the credit of beating a top-15 team and stays alive in the conference and the playoff race, while the loser drops a few spots and is doubtful to play more than one game in late December.