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Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. Wisconsin Badgers Preview and Prediction

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The battle for the Paul Bunyan Axe will take place in Madison, Wisconsin, on Saturday. Once again, the game carries Big Ten West Division and conference title implications. In fact, you could argue that it serves as a College Football Playoff elimination game should Wisconsin lose.

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The game between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Badgers features two teams with a similar approach. Both clubs want to run the ball and control the clock. As a result, this one is likely to be a low-scoring affair that does not take very long. The Badgers will be motivated to win the division and stay alive in the playoff mix, while the Gophers are looking to improve their standing in the eyes of a couple of bowl committees.

Minnesota at Wisconsin

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 26 at 3:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: BTN

Spread: Wisconsin -14

Three Things to Watch

1. Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli

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Both teams are going to be loading up the box to stop the run. At some point, the passing game comes into play. Keep an eye on how Badger head coach Paul Chryst utilizes his star tight end and whether or not the Gopher defense is ready for it. It will be interesting to see whether or not Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys goes all in on shutting down Wisconsin's rushing attack and forces the Badgers to win with their two-quarterback rotation. Fumagalli's size alone can create problems for Minnesota's secondary between the 20s.

2. Can the Badgers shut down Minnesota running back Rodney Smith?

As we said, both teams will be focused on stopping the run, but teams have tried to stop the Gopher rushing attack all season to no avail. Smith, Minnesota's leading rusher, has been one of the most underrated and dangerous backs in the nation this season. He has already topped the 1,000-yard mark and has accounted for 15 of his teams 39 touchdowns on the year. If Wisconsin wants to win this game, the easiest way to do that is to shut down the Gophers' big-play threat at running back.

3. Can Wisconsin pull away?

The Badgers are favored by 14 points, but the Gophers haven't lost a game by more than a touchdown all season. In fact, their three losses have come by a combined 17 points to teams with collective record of 25-8. Look for this game to be much closer that the experts predict, as Minnesota is just a couple of plays from being undefeated. If it's close late, the scales tip in Minnesota's favor. The Gophers have more home-run threats capable of deciding a tight game with one play. Wisconsin needs to have this one in hand early in the fourth quarter.

Final Analysis

Camp Randall Stadium is a tough place to play. The Badger faithful will be fired up at the prospect of playing for the Big Ten title and possibly qualifying for the College Football Playoff. From a talent standpoint -- especially in the trenches -- Wisconsin is the better team and should be able to lean on its offensive and defensive lines to control the game. That said, the Badgers are going to need to open up the offense to pull away in this slugfest. When they do, it could be wide receiver Jazz Peavy who is the beneficiary. He has caught at least one pass in every game this season for the Badgers and has found the end zone more than any other pass catcher on the team. When Minnesota's on offense, I have a hard time seeing the Gophers moving the ball consistently enough against a solid Wisconsin defense to take and keep a lead. Look for Wisconsin to control a close game from start to finish with one big play by Peavy likely to seal the win and the Big Ten West title.

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Prediction: Wisconsin 24, Minnesota 13

— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.