We've had no shortage of big games in the Big Ten this season. The nation's oldest conference dominates the top 10 of the polls and has a total of five teams in the initial release of the College Football Playoff rankings.
On Saturday, Wisconsin and Northwestern meet in Evanston, Illinois, for yet another key conference battle. With nearly everyone assuming a Nebraska loss to Ohio State, Wisconsin essentially controls the Big Ten West. That said, Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats are playing with a renewed confidence after last weekend's slugfest with the Buckeyes. They currently have the same conference record as the Badgers and could effectively eliminate Wisconsin from Big Ten title contention by pulling off the upset at home.
Needless to say, there is plenty on the line in what looks to be a very physical November matchup in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 5 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Wisconsin -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Wisconsin score some points?
Outside of a beatdown of Akron where they scored 54, the Badgers are averaging less than 20 points per game. Their defense is good — one of the best in the country — but they are tired and hurt. It's unrealistic to ask defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to design schemes week in and week out contingent on holding opponents to fewer than 20 points in order to seal a win. The Badgers had success running the ball on some change-of-pace plays against Nebraska last weekend — especially in the second half. Wisconsin would be wise to mirror that attack on Saturday, especially if Paul Chryst is going to continue rotating quarterbacks — subsequently throwing off the continuity and timing in the Badger passing game.
2. Northwestern's running game
Justin Jackson is having yet another fantastic season toting the rock for Northwestern. The key for Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats is to feed him the ball all day. Northwestern is 4-0 this season when Jackson rushes 26 times or more. With Wisconsin's issues on offense, speeding up what will already be a very short, defensive game could be a death knell for the Badgers. Look for Jackson to log more than 30 carries in an effort for Northwestern to stay within striking distance and open up the offense in the fourth quarter.
3. The kicking game
This one is likely to be decided by one score either way. Neither team has been stellar in terms of the kicking game this season. Expect the kickers — for better or worse — to be a huge factor in deciding this important divisional contest. Surprisingly for an early November game in Chicagoland, the weather should not play a factor. Any difficulties had by either special teams unit will boil down to execution alone.
On the surface, this game does not look like that big of a deal. As you dig deeper, however, you see the importance of this contest on a national scale. Wisconsin might be the only team from the Big Ten West that can knock off either Ohio State or Michigan on a neutral field and subsequently keep the Big Ten out of the College Football Playoff. One loss between now and the Big Ten Championship Game eliminates the possibility of that scenario playing out. The Badgers are battered, beaten and tired — yet they keep showing up and competing. Unfortunately for Paul Chryst's group, I'm not sure their patchwork lineup has what it takes to go on the road and win another physical game. They'll show up and compete like they do every week, but they'll eventually be worn down by an elite running back and an underrated defense. Look for the teams to trade a couple of touchdowns and field goals before Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson makes the play that eventually wins this one for the Wildcats.
Prediction: Northwestern 20, Wisconsin 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.