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Northwestern Wildcats vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers Preview and Prediction

Author:
Austin Carr

Austin Carr

When it comes to the Big Ten, everyone is focused on Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State right now. Those four teams are all dominating national conversation and jockeying for College Football Playoff position. In the meantime, the Northwestern Wildcats and Minnesota Golden Gophers sit quietly off to the side — both still technically alive in the race for the Big Ten West.

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It's a long shot for both teams, but with some help and at least one monumental upset, it could be either Minnesota or Northwestern playing Ohio State, Penn State or Michigan in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Forget what they can't control. On Saturday, the Wildcats and Gophers meet in what amounts to an divisional elimination game.

Northwestern at Minnesota

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 19 at 3:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: BTN

Spread: Northwestern -1.5

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Three Things to Watch

1. Are we in for a shootout?

The over/under for this one is set at 45. The weather is supposed to be cold-but-clear on Saturday in Minneapolis. Both of these teams have some underrated home-run hitters that will be facing some banged-up, less-than-impressive defenses. I'll take the over in this one. I'm expecting an exciting, back-and-forth game where both coaches pull out all the stops — including some tricks — in attempting to bring home the win.

2. Northwestern receiver Austin Carr

Carr is one of the most underrated players nationally. He has caught at least five passes in every game this season for at least 73 yards. He has six games of 100 or more receiving yards and has only failed to find the end zone in two games all season. He's easily the top target in the Northwestern offense, accounting for 34 percent of the Wildcat receptions on the year and 40 percent of the team's offensive touchdowns. The Wildcats are 0-2 when Carr doesn't score and 3-0 when he has more than one touchdown. If Minnesota wants to win, keeping a close eye and tight coverage on Carr is the easiest way to get that done.

3. Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner

Leidner is a threat with his legs, but he's been less than impressive through the air in 2016. Somehow, some way, that needs to change for the Gophers to keep pace on Saturday. Minnesota has a respectable stable of running backs, but the passing game is going to need to be functioning at a higher level than it has all season in order to keep Northwestern honest.

Final Analysis

The Gophers have home-field advantage and the better record, but it just feels like Northwestern is the better team here. I like the variety of offensive weapons that the Wildcats bring to the table, and I feel like they'll be able to do more damage in this back-and-forth tilt. It should be close for a half or so, but eventually Mitch Leidner's inability to convert on third downs as a passer will give Northwestern the extra possessions it needs to pull away.

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Prediction: Northwestern 31, Minnesota 23

— 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.