It seems like only yesterday that a Big Ten team was hoisting the national championship trophy, but we’re actually inching closer to the biggest day of the offseason — national signing day.
That means recruits are taking last-minute visits, coaches are crisscrossing the country to visit players and offers are going out on a nearly daily basis. To say these next few weeks will be crazy is a bit of an understatement, however the Big Ten is in on some major battles nationally and regionally as we head down the homestretch of the 205 recruiting cycle.
That means every team is putting out maximum effort to get the guys they want to sign to actually sign and fax in national letter of intent on the first Wednesday in February.
It also means that battles are heating up all over the country. Which battles are the Big Ten involved in? Let’s start by looking at the biggest battles for the Big Ten West.
Every Big Ten West division team’s biggest question following spring football
Spring camps are finished, what questions remain for teams in the Big Ten West division?
Michigan has arrived back in Ann Arbor, meaning spring football is finally and officially done across the Big Ten. College football’s annual rite of passage is also done, and there is plenty of curiosity to go around.
That means it is time to take stock of where things sit heading in to the summer workout sessions and the season ahead. It is also the perfect time to really dive deep in to what we did and didn’t see this spring.
Let’s start with the Big Ten West division, which had two new head coaches and another head coach with his first real spring camp in the books. Minnesota got the P.J. Fleck era under way and Purdue welcomed Jeff Brohm’s high-flying offensive attack to the division. Meanwhile, Illinois’ Love Smith finally got to run a full spring practice without rushing things.
Which teams answered questions, which ones have big-time questions to answer this fall? Let us take a look at every Big Ten West division teams’ biggest question post-spring football.
Minnesota Golden Gophers vs Wisconsin Badgers: Preview, Predictions and Prognostications
When: Saturday, November 26 – 3:30 PM ET
Where: Camp Randell Stadium, Madison, Wisconsin
All-Time Series: Minnesota leads 59-58-8
Last Meeting: Wisconsin won 31-21 (2015)
Line: Wisconsin -14.5
Wisconsin is riding high into the last week of the college football regular season. The Badgers are 9-2 overall, 6-2 in Big Ten play, and they control their own destiny in the Big Ten West division.
The Wisconsin vs Minnesota rivalry has been anything but a rivalry the past 12 years. The last time Minnesota defeated the Badgers was on November 8, 2003, when they were playing at home. Minnesota hasn’t defeated the Badgers in Madison since the 1994 season. The Gophers hold a 0-10 record in Madison since that win.
Since losing back-to-back games against Michigan and Ohio State, Wisconsin has won five consecutive games heading into Saturday’s showdown against Minnesota on Senior Day. Wisconsin can clinch the division crown on Friday if Iowa defeats Nebraska in Iowa City. If not, the Badgers will need to defeat Minnesota for the thirteenth consecutive time to punch their ticket to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship game.
Saturday will be the 126th meeting between the Badgers and Golden Gophers, marking the most-played rivalry in the FBS football.
At 8-3 overall and 5-3 in conference play, Minnesota has a lot to play for themselves. Unfortunately, the Golden Gophers they can do no better than sharing the Big Ten West crown, if they can pair an Iowa win on Friday with a win of their own. In that scenario, Minnesota would still lose out on tiebreakers to go to Indianapolis. If all four teams finish 6-3 in conference, Wisconsin would get the nod to Indy based on a 2-1 record against common opponents.
In addition to the Big Ten West implications, Saturday’s matchup will have implications toward the 2016 college football playoff as well. Wisconsin currently sits at No. 5 in the AP Poll and No. 6 in the CFP rankings. With Ohio State and Michigan playing a literal elimination game on Saturday, there will be a shake up in the rankings, and Wisconsin has much to gain from an Ohio State, Clemson, or Washington loss.
If Wisconsin wants to impress the selection committee on Saturday, they will focus on the task at hand and handily defeat Minnesota on Saturday as expected (the Badgers are currently favored by more than two touchdowns). Wisconsin is clearly sitting as the top two-loss-team in the CFP rankings, but they still need one more top 5 team to lose before they can feel safe about controlling their own destiny for the playoffs.
1 BURNING QUESTION: Can Wisconsin score enough points to impress the selection committee?
Wisconsin not only needs to win Saturday’s game, but they need to win it convincingly to score some style points in the process. The knock on the Badgers right now is that they aren’t “sexy” enough offensively and wouldn’t be a true threat to defeat No. 1 Alabama if the two teams faced in a hypothetical playoff matchup.
A dominant win over an eight-win Minnesota team would give the selection committee reason to feel more confident moving the Badgers up over a weaker one-loss team such as Washington, which would be crucial in aiding the Badgers in their bid for a playoff berth.
The Badgers’ nationally elite defense has shown that it is capable of scoring points of its own (see T.J. Watt touchdown against Purdue), and Saturday’s game would be an ideal setting for the Badgers stingy defense to shut down Minnesota’s offense and possibly score some points of its own in the process.
2 KEY STATS
– 12: That’s the amount of points that Wisconsin has given up in the first quarter of games all season. Wisconsin’s defense, which ranks in the top five in scoring defense per game at 13.4, is especially dominant in the first 15 minutes of games in 2016. The Badgers have given up just 12 points in 11 first quarters so far this season, a ridiculous statistic that really shows how good the Badgers’ defense has been early in games. Minnesota’s offense will be overjoyed o come away with a first quarter field goal on Saturday.
– 22.2: That’s the average amount points that Minnesota is surrendering to opponents in 2016. Minnesota’s defense is solid in its own right. The Golden Gophers’ scoring defense is good enough to place them in the top 30 nationally. Wisconsin will need to play an efficient game on offense, as well as scoring touchdowns when the Badgers reach the red-zone instead of settling for field goals. If Wisconsin can put up more than three touchdowns on Saturday, expect the Badgers to ultimately win the game.
3 KEY PLAYERS:
Mitch Leidner, Minnesota QB: Minnesota will need its senior quarterback to play the best game of his career if they want to score enough points to have a chance at scoring the huge upset in Madison on Saturday. Leidner has developed from a run first QB into a pass first QB, but accuracy issues remain a problem at times. Look for Wisconsin to control their pass rush to make Leidner beat tight coverage from inside the pocket instead of on the edges where he likes to play.
Corey Clement, Wisconsin RB: The senior running back went over the 1,000-rushing yard mark last week for the first time in his career. Clement and the Badgers rushing attack has been reaching its collective stride recently. Look for that to continue Saturday. If Wisconsin has their way running the football, it will go a long way toward the Badgers’ chances of defeating the Golden Gophers for a thirteenth consecutive time.
T.J. Watt, Wisconsin OLB: In his first season as a starter at linebacker, Watt has performed better than anyone could have realistically imagined coming into the 2016 campaign. Watt has led the Badgers in sacks, tackles for loss, and he even intercepted a pass for a touchdown against Purdue last week. No one knows what J.J.’s younger brother has in store for the college football world this week, but one thing we do know for sure is that Watt’s role will play a significant impact on the overall outcome of Saturday’s game.
Andy: Wisconsin 28-10
Dave: Wisconsin 59-0
Phil H.: Wisconsin 27-10
Philip R-R.: Wisconsin 24-14
Zach: Wisconsin 28-13
Wisconsin Badgers vs. Minnesota Gophers: Preview, predictions and prognostications
When: Sat. Nov 28; 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Minneapolis, MN; TCF Bank Stadium (50,805)
All-Time Series: Minnesota leads 59-57-8
Last Meeting: Wisconsin win 34-24 (2014)
Line: Wisconsin -2
It’s time to renew the rivalry for Paul Bunyan’s axe, and we can all hope somebody’s eye doesn’t get poked out by the game trophy. The two have been getting together since 1890, and have played a whopping 124 times, making this the longest standing rivalry in all of the FBS. But there’s been a bit of an issue recently. Wisconsin has won eleven straight over their rivals, closing the gap in the all-time series quickly. Minnesota would like to put an end to that Saturday.
It’ll be both head coaches’ first time leading their teams into this rivalry, and could set the tone for the future. Wisconsin has been the royalty of the teams within the West Division, and you know that Claeys would like to plant a flag that he’s going to have the Gophers in the same rarefied air as the Badger program. It all goes down in the late afternoon on Saturday.
1 Burning Question: What Kind of Wisconsin Team Will We See?
There are so many unknowns coming into this one, and Corey Clement is evidence A1. Will he play or won’t he. He’s listed as doubtful, and has the whole legal issues that are being sorted out, so that leave’s things a bit up in the air. If he can’t go, it’ll put more pressure on Joel Stave to deliver through the air, and although he’s been great at times, he threw two picks against a sturdy Northwestern defense last week in an ugly loss. The Minnesota secondary possesses a similar mindset in giving up passing yards, so the football will be flying into a headwind.
2 Key Stats:
— 138.2. That’s the shockingly low rushing yards per game for Wisconsin. The culture of the Badger program has been based on a punishing running attack, but it’s been turned upside down this year. The injuries to Corey Clement and the offensive line haven’t helped things, but this is a program that should be able to plug guys into the system and go. It hasn’t happened this year and it’s made the offense less dynamic than years’ past.
— 63.5%. That’s the completion percentage for Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner in November, up from 59.4% for the year. The Gophers ability to throw the ball more consistently down the stretch has made a challenged offense a little more potent as the sands run out of the season’s hourglass. Leidner will need to be on point to move the ball against the nation’s top ranked scoring defense.
3 Key Players:
C.J Maye, Minnesota WR: Part of the reason the Gophers have found some offense late in the season is because of the emergence of Maye. His ability to make plays at key moments in the game have kept the chains moving on numerous occasions. He’s got to find some space and separation Saturday against a stubborn Badger defense.
Joel Stave, Wisconsin QB: You know the story with Stave. The Badgers have had to rely on his arm more this year than what anyone expected with the issues with injuries and the running game. He’s done well for the most part, but he’s going against a solid Gopher defense that doesn’t let too much get behind them. He’s got to pick out his receivers, check-down if need be and move the ball with patience.
Joe Schobert, Wisconsin LB: You could make the argument that Schobert is the defensive player of the year in the Big Ten, and you might be right. He always seems to be in the right spot whether it be in supporting the run or coming on a blitz to put pressure on the QB. Despite the Gopher resurgence in the passing game, they’ll still need balance to really effective, and that’s where Schobert comes in. If he can diagnose plays, get to the ball carrier and allow his teammates to help stuff things on the ground, it’ll be tough for Minnesota to get anything cooking consistently on offense.
4 Bold Prognostications:
— Mitch Leidner will be held under 150 yards passing. He’s provided some push down field in recent memory but was held to just 88 yards through the air against Illinois last week. Wisconsin will bring complex pressure from different angles and confuse Leidner enough to force some rushed incompletions.
— Neither team will go over 380 yards of total offense. These are two similar-minded teams who like to play solid defense, but run into struggles at times on the offensive end. Both defenses will control things in a cold, November day where yards on the ground will be key.
— Wisconsin’s defense will force at least three turnovers. We touched on it already, but the Badger defense is built on bringing pressure and schemes that are meant to confuse the opposing quarterback. Leidner will have a tough day through the air and will take some blind-side hits. It’ll result in multiple turnovers through both picks and fumbles that will be key moments in this one.
— Joe Schobert will have at least a dozen tackles. It’s going to be a slugfest in the Twin Cities, and that’s where the Wisconsin linebacker excels. You’ll hear his name called early and often, getting in on a myriad of running plays and swing passes designed to control the game.
5 Staff Predictions:
Andy: Wisconsin 24-20 (82-23 overall; 50-54 ATS)
Dave: Minnesota 10-6 (86-19 overall; 56-47 ATS)
Greg: Wisconsin 20-17 (79-26 overall; 61-42 ATS)
Matt: Wisconsin 27-14 (83-22 overall; 58-45 ATS)
Phil: Wisconsin 21-17 (38-14 overall; 19-30 ATS) *joined in Week 5