It's not often that the Big Ten's conference slate has all its interesting games at noon. But lo and behold, that's what we've got this week, with the Big Ten's only BCS hope Michigan State facing nemesis Iowa at home, Minnesota and Northwestern in a "wait they seriously went 4-0 in the non-conference?" battle, and Wisconsin traveling to Purdue.
That last game, Wisconsin at Purdue, is one to keep your eye on. The Big Ten slate is long, and for Purdue it has just begun, but the bleak nature of the Leaders Division means this game could (and likely will) end up being a de facto play-in game for the Big Ten Championship come December.
Will it be a close game? Probably; Purdue is a one-point favorite, according to VegasInsider.com, and the game opened with an even line (and this is where we remind you to never bet on college football). Will it be a good game? As in one with lots of solid technique, few mistakes and a surfeit of NFL talent? Ha. Ha ha ha. Hahahahahahaha, lord no. But it has that Big Ten Championship Game consequence going with it, so it's worth watching.
In terms of who's actually going to win, obviously it's tough to say. Joel Stave has been competent in his limited time as Wisconsin's starter, and the touch on his deep passes is commendable. And although WR Jared Abbrederis is about more than just straight-ahead speed—you don't get to be the best wideout in the conference by just doing a Willie Gault impression—that's where he and Stave have been the most effective this year.
We're likely to see more tests of the Purdue secondary's verticality on Saturday. Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson are both talented corners in coverage and can close on the ball with the best of them, but when it comes to deep throws, it's just "my speed vs. your speed," and Abbrederis has good reason to like his speed more than anyone he's facing.
But for as sexy as big plays are, the real key to stopping Wisconsin is keeping that ground game in check—and so far that's been relatively easy to do for opponents. Wisconsin is 11th in the conference in rushing yards per game (and dead last in total offense) thus far, which seems insane considering the talent at running back and the presence of two returning starters from a historically dominant line, but here we are.
But there's reason to think a turnaround is happening. Last week, Wisconsin was about to wear down a strong Illinois rushing defense en route to 33 rushes for 173 yards and two scores. Montee Ball topped six yards per carry on the day; he hadn't averaged even 4.5 in a single game this season before that.
Who ya got this weekend?
Now, Purdue's rushing defense is more porous than Illinois', both in yards per game (Purdue: 146, Illinois: 124) and yards per carry (Purdue: 4.01, Illinois 3.56). So there's going to be an opportunity for Wisconsin to establish that ground game once again. But Purdue does have some special talent in the likes of DT Kawann Short and DE Ryan Russell, both of whom are very disruptive up front, so the battle for the line of scrimmage isn't automatically going to Wisconsin.
There's a lot on the line here. No, neither Purdue nor Wisconsin are going to be favored in the Big Ten Championship, once it's decided who's going. No, neither would be a serious contender to win the Legends Division against the likes of Michigan State, Michigan and Nebraska.
But hey, if you're in the conference title game, you've made it closer to the Rose Bowl than the vast majority of the conference. And you're just one win, one game away from punching your ticket to Pasadena. Anything can happen in one game.