A historically weird Big Ten season will come to an end this weekend, as No. 12 Nebraska and unranked Wisconsin square off in the conference's second annual championship came.
Nebraska has earned its spot on merit, rumbling to an impressive 7-1 record in its second Big Ten football season.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, technically finished third in the Leaders division. The Badgers earned their spot by default, the willing beneficiaries of postseason sanctions imposed at Ohio State and Penn State.
The Badgers began the season ranked 12th in the nation, but underachieved en route to a 7-5 record. But that number can be deceiving. Every single one of their five losses came by a field goal, three of them taking place in overtime.
One of those tight losses came at Nebraska on September 29––a closely contested game that Wisconsin at one point led 27-10.
The Huskers have improved as the season progressed, but if the Badgers were able to compete in Lincoln, they're certainly capable of competing on a neutral field.
We could argue about Wisconsin's Rose Bowl credentials 'til the cows come home. In a normal season, they wouldn't be in this auspicious position. But this isn't a normal season.
One game separates the Badgers from turning a disappointing campaign into a potentially magical one. The question is whether they have what it takes to make those dreams come true.
Let's take a closer look:
When: Saturday, Dec. 1, 8:17 pm. EST
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, IN
Listen: 99.7 FM/102.3 FM (Wisconsin), KFAB 1110 AM (Nebraska)
Live Stream: Big Ten Digital Network
Spread: Nebraska -3 (via Las Vegas Hilton)
The line opened at Nebraska -2.5 at most books, allowing smart bettors to get the vital half-point before pushing it to -3.
As alluded to earlier, Wisconsin has been in every game it has played this season. All of its losses came by exactly three points, including the late-September loss to Nebraska in Lincoln.
Wisconsin will technically be the home team on Saturday, which is mere semantics, but the move from Lincoln to Indianapolis should work in Wisconsin's favor. As ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett pointed out, the state of Indiana has provided fertile soil for the Badgers in 2012:
Games against Purdue and Indiana don't directly translate against Nebraska's stifling defense, but the numbers are eye-popping nonetheless.
Wisconsin has the "Nobody Believes in Us!" theory working in full effect, especially against a team that's been markedly worse away from home.
Take the points in what's sure to be a close game. If Wisconsin's year is an indication of things to come, the worst you can do is push.
Over/Under: 49.0 (via Las Vegas Hilton)
The teams' previous meeting finished with a total of 57, but needed a late barrage of points from Nebraska to get there.
Wisconsin has the 17th-ranked scoring defense in the nation, allowing a scant 18.1 points per game; the 30 points it allowed to Nebraska was the highest total they allowed all season. And after that fateful night in Lincoln, it allowed 14,14,13,16, and 14 points in their next five contests.
But let's not forget the one-game history of the Big Ten Championship. Wisconsin and Michigan State both boasted stellar defenses in 2011, but played a 42-39 shootout in Indianapolis. Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins won't be suiting up for this one, but Montee Ball, Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead will.
Another thing to keep in mind: Wisconsin has gone to overtime in three of its last four contests. Extra football means extra points––especially in the college game.
Go against the grain; take the over.
Wisconsin Injury Report (via USA Today – as of 11/28/12)
|OL Rob Havenstein||Knee||Questionable|
|LB Chris Borland||Hamstring||Questionable|
The status of Chris Borland––who earlier this week was named to the All-Big Ten First Team––could be one of the deciding factors on Saturday night. The versatile junior missed last week's game against Penn State with a hamstring injury, and is decidedly questionable against Nebraska. He had nine total tackles when the two teams met in September.
Starting right tackle Rob Havenstein played on his strained MCL against Penn State, but is officially listed as questionable for the Nebraska game.
Nebraska Injury Report (via USA Today – as of 11/28/12)
|WR Kenny Bell||Neck||Probable|
|FB Mike Marrow||Knee||Questionable|
|C Justin Jackson||Ankle||Doubtful|
|DT Baker Steinkuhler||Knee||Doubtful|
Injuries to linemen Justin Jackson and Baker Steinkuhler could be tragic blows for the Huskers.
Both men were 12-game starters for Nebraska this season, and their service would have been vital against a big, physical Wisconsin team. The loss of Steinkuhler should open up some more room for Montee Ball, while the loss of Jackson should close some of Rex Burkhead's holes in the A-gap.
Saturday's winner advances to the Rose Bowl, where it'll face either UCLA or Stanford.
The loser, on the other hand, could end up in a number of different places.
ESPN.com's bowl projections have Nebraska in the Rose Bowl and Wisconsin in the Gator Bowl––a likely scenario if the Huskers pull out the victory.
But if Wisconsin goes to the Rose Bowl, Nebraska's addition to the bowl pool could shuffle the Big Ten's deck.
Most notably, it could push Northwestern out of the Outback Bowl and into, perhaps, the Gator Bowl. They're both against SEC teams, but the Wildcats stand a much better chance against Mississippi State than they would against South Carolina. Burdened with the weight of a 64-year bowl-drought-monkey on their back, Northwestern needs all the help it can get.
Nebraska's loss could, and probably would, also push it out of the BCS Top 16. That could be season-changing news for No. 17 Kent State, who qualifies for a BCS bowl if it finishes in the Top 16.
Eyes throughout Evanston and Kent will be glued to this game, and those football fans will all be rooting for the Badgers.
Keys to Wisconsin Victory
Wisconsin has won and lost on the shoulders of Montee Ball in 2012, a fact that isn't likely to change in the championship game.
After a slow start to his final season in Madison, Ball came on strong down the stretch, breaking the NCAA's all-time touchdown mark in the process. His season totals of 311 carries, 1528 yards and 18 TDs are indicative of his importance to this offense.
But in the Badgers' loss to Nebraska this season, he was stifled to the tune of 90 yards on 32 carries. He scored three times, sure, but his YPC of 2.8 was untenable for the Badgers, and would be again on Saturday. He was also momentously stuffed on 4th-and-1 in the game's last minute, fumbling in the process and ending the Badgers' chance of tying the score.
Wisconsin's entire offense is predicated on establishing the run; without it, the passing game is anemic. If the Badgers can spring Ball early, their offense might be able to find a rhythm against a stout-but-vulnerable Nebraska defense.
Ball rushed for 137 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries in last season's championship game. If he averages 5.1 yards per carry again this weekend, he could once again propel his team to Pasadena.
Keys to Nebraska Victory
Would it be a cop-out to say stopping Montee Ball?
Fine. As important as it will be for the Huskers to shut down Wisconsin's ground game, establishing their own aerial game will be equally vital.
The massive improvement in Taylor Martinez's arm has been one of the key factors in Nebraska's resurgence this year. His completion percentage is up seven points––from 56.3 percent to 63.3 percent––and he's thrown for almost 400 more yards than he did in 2011.
But at times, signs of last year's noodle-armed inconsistency have bullied their way to the surface. A 16-for-36, three-interception performance at Michigan State was salvaged by Martinez's 205 yards on the ground. And just last week, a putrid 8-for-14, 63-yard performance at Iowa was bailed out by a stellar defensive effort.
Martinez was good-but-not-great in the regular season victory over Wisconsin, augmenting a commonplace passing game with 100-plus yards on the ground.
But in a game that could see more points than anticipated, it might take more than just a ground attack for Nebraska to end up seeing Roses. Especially if they spot Wisconsin 17 points like it did in September.
Let's be honest here. Even though the records suggest otherwise, the difference between these teams is palpably negligible.
Nebraska has been better at pulling out close games than Wisconsin, but the two teams mirror each other in almost every conceivable way. They're about as different as night and later that night.
Accordingly, I think this game stays close throughout, despite a number of twists and turns along the way. And in the end, I think the "Nobody Believes in Us!" theory will hold course.
Get ready for a month of strident First Take arguments about whether Wisconsin deserves a spot in the Rose Bowl!
Predicted Score: Wisconsin 31, Nebraska 28