The Badgers are looking to close out a perfect 2017 slate
The Wisconsin Badgers and Minnesota Golden Gophers will meet up in Minneapolis on Saturday in the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe. Aside from the normal tension and bitterness that normally come with a rivalry, this game carries with it postseason implications for both teams. The Badgers are trying to remain unbeaten and alive in the College Football Playoff picture, while the Gophers are looking for that all-important sixth win of the season to become bowl-eligible.
Wisconsin at Minnesota
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 25 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Wisconsin -17
Three Things to Watch
1. Does Wisconsin start slow again?
The Badgers have been a second-half team all season. They wear down teams early in what appear to be close games, only to pull away in the second half on the back of explosive plays both through the air and on the ground. Paul Chryst may want to rethink that approach on Saturday. The Gophers will be fired up in front of their home crowd, looking to play spoiler on the national stage. The longer they stay in this, the more I like their chances. With that in mind, don't be shocked to see Badger quarterback Alex Hornibrook take to the air early on, looking for the big play. If nothing else, Wisconsin may attempt to loosen up what is likely to be a loaded box as the Gophers attempt to shut down Wisconsin's lethal rushing attack.
2. Big plays on special teams
Both of these clubs have had success in the return game this season. If this game is close at all, momentum will be key. A kick or punt return for a score for either team — especially early — could set the tone for how this one goes. If Wisconsin gets one early, the rout may be on. If it's the Gophers who land the big shot on special teams, it could be enough to bolster the confidence of an already energized Gopher team and keep them in the game longer than they otherwise should have been.
3. How does Minnesota move the ball?
The Badger defense is among the very best in the nation. If the Gophers can't stay on the field offensively, their defense is in for a long day against a punishing Wisconsin rushing attack. I don't believe Minnesota can just line up against Wisconsin and beat the Badgers straight up. It's going to take some creativity on the part of Gopher head coach P.J. Fleck and his staff. Look for Minnesota to find creative ways to get the ball to Rodney Smith — the Gophers' top playmaker — in space. Dual-threat quarterback Demry Croft (above, right) will likely also be a factor in this strategy. Don't be stunned to see Fleck toss everything from flea-flickers to halfback passes at the Badger defense in an effort to get anything going offensively and keep Wisconsin on its heels a bit.
The smart thing for the Badgers to do here is to play it safe. Lean on what got you here: running the football and playing sound, conservative defense. There's no reason Wisconsin can't win this game easily by playing it safe, but all it will take is that one big play from Minnesota to foil that strategy. In the end, I believe Paul Chryst and his staff — one of the most underrated groups of coaches in all of college football — will have the Badgers laser-focused on the task at hand. The Badgers know what's at stake, and they know a lot of people are waiting for them to trip up. Not on this day. Freshman sensation Jonathan Taylor will continue his Heisman-caliber season with a big day on the ground as the Badgers take care of business wire to wire and maintain possession of Paul Bunyan's Axe.
Prediction: Wisconsin 41, Minnesota 6
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He also covers the Big Ten for Black Heart Gold Pants, Iowa's SB Nation blog. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.