It's only the third week of Big Ten play, but the Wisconsin Badgers matchup with the Purdue Boilermakers already has serious implications in the BIG's Leaders Division.
The Badgers (4-2) are a third quarter collapse away from being 2-0 in conference play, but they will have to settle for 1-1 as they head into West Lafayette for their showdown with Purdue (3-2, 0-1).
A quick glance at the Big Ten standings essentially shows that Wisconsin is in first place in the Leaders Division. That, of course, is because Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible to reach postseason play.
The standings also show that the Badgers are the only team among the four eligible to win the Leaders Division to have a win in conference play. With Illinois squaring off against Michigan and Indiana facing Ohio State on Saturday, it's a distinct possibility each of those teams will fall to 0-3 in the BIG following this weekend.
See where this is going?
If Wisconsin can manage to knock off the 2.5 point favorite Boilers, the Badgers will already be two wins ahead of the remaining postseason eligible teams in their division—three games into conference play.
Before jumping ahead to the rest of conference play, how do the Badgers knock off Purdue to get into this promising situation?
They will likely have to deal with the return of running back Ralph Bolden, who Purdue head coach Brady Hope believes will make his season debut Saturday against Wisconsin (via Pete DiPrimio of The News-Sentinel).
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“We feel a lot more comfortable about playing Ralph this weekend,” Hope said, “and I think Ralph is a lot more comfortable, as well. I don't anticipate putting Ralph in for 25 or 30 players, or even for 20 carries. The number of plays has yet to be determined."
Bolden is coming off the third torn ACL of his career, but he has shown flashes of brilliance in the past and averages 4.5 yards per carry in his career. Purdue only managed 56 rushing yards in its 44-13 loss to Michigan last week.
Despite the Boilermakers coming off a lopsided defeat, Hope doesn't believe that result will affect how his team plays against Wisconsin.
The magnitude of this game will get our team's attention. We'll need all of our focus geared toward playing Wisconsin. I'd be disappointed if we were so weak-minded that we let a loss linger and affect the outcome of our season.
With that said, the Badgers may smell blood in the water and look to deal Purdue a punishing blow. Wisconsin is riding the high of a 31-14 win over Illinois and a resurgent performance from Montee Ball, who rushed 19 times for 116 yards and two scores last week.
Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema doesn't view the upcoming clash with Purdue as a do-or-die situation, however (via Jeff Potrykus of the Journal Sentinel).
Somebody is trying to say that this is the game that is going to decide it all. That is the furthest from the truth. Your overall conference record is going to come into play. There are six games out there on the schedule for us and every one of them is in the Big Ten.
These are two conflicting views from each coach, but there are pros and cons to both downplaying the significance of a game and getting your team amped up. Which mindset will win out on Saturday?
Will the winner of Purdue vs. Wisconsin go on to win the Leaders Division?
It’s easy to understand the perspective of each coach. Hope understands how difficult it would be to dig out of an early hole, and Bielema is taking his typical 1-0 approach, knowing a loss isn’t the end all-be, be-all for the Badgers.
Moving past this week, should the Badgers escape West Lafayette and improve their record to 5-2 (2-1), they are left with three of their remaining five games at Camp Randall, where Wisconsin hasn't lost since 2009.
Games at home against Minnesota and away against Indiana appear to be likely victories, and Wisconsin benefits from playing Ohio State and Michigan State in Madison. The Spartans are almost a mirror image of the Badgers at 4-2 (1-1), struggling to kick-start their offense and hold off easier opponents.
Even if Wisconsin only manages to win two of its remaining five games, it would still force Purdue to win five of its last six—four of which are on the road—since the Badgers would hold the tie breaker.
In other words, this upcoming game is huge—for both teams. If Wisconsin can win, it will be well on its way to Indianapolis and the Big Ten Football Championship Game.