It's another big day of college football on Saturday, with plenty of matchups that hold rankings and standings implications. And while there are plenty of intriguing games, none may be better than the Saturday night matchup between No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 16 Michigan.
On Saturday night, Michigan State welcomes Wisconsin to East Lansing for a matchup that could be a Big Ten championship preview. The 6-0 Badgers travel to Spartan Stadium relatively untested, with the 5-1 Spartans chomping at the bit.
To get a better idea of what could happen in the matchup, we grabbed Louis Bien and John Veldhuis from our Wisconsin blog, Bucky's 5th Quarter, and Pete Rossman from our Michigan State blog, The Only Colors, to preview the game in a roundtable format. Their answers can be found below.
How do you feel about your teams thus far this season?
Pete Rossman: I feel pretty darn good about Michigan State so far. The Notre Dame loss I could've done without, but the defense is much, much better than I'd thought they'd be, and it's been a long time since the Spartans have beat OSU and Michigan in the same season. Being in the driver's seat in the Legends division is nice.
Louis Bien: As a Badger fan, I struggle thinking of anything to complain about. The offense is the easiest thing to point to, but the defense has been phenomenal giving up just 264 yards a game. The front seven has struggled against the running game at times. Last week they ceded 223 yards to Indiana on the ground (67 on one play). Otherwise, simply hearing Wisconsin's name batted around in national championship discussions is about all I can ask for.
John Veldhuis: I feel good about this team. Bret Bielema has proven he is the man to keep Wisconsin in the national spotlight. His "1-0" mentality keeps his team focused on one game at a time, so they won't get caught overlooking anybody. As for the actual team, I don't think it's a stretch to say the Badgers have the best offense in the country. No team is more flexible in how it can beat you. As far as the defense goes, they've certainly been good enough. I wouldn't call it an elite group, but the "bend but don't break" attitude has served them well. They have enough playmakers to get necessary stops, and that's really all the Badgers need to succeed.
Wisconsin has yet to be really tested, winning each of its games by a wide margin. Will Michigan State be the one to push, or even beat, the Badgers? Why or why not?
Pete: I think given the atmosphere (it's a night game and Michigan State's homecoming) and the MSU defense. The defense has allowed 186 yards per game, one of only two teams (the other Alabama) to average less than 200 yards in that stat this year. While Wisconsin will still put points on the board, they're going to find a bit more resistance than in their previous games.
Louis: Michigan State really impressed me last weekend. An offensive line that I thought was garbage actually looked dominant. Granted, Michigan was hardly deserving of being near the Top 10, but they weren't nobodies either. A competent offense coupled with a ferocious defense playing at home make this a closer game. That said, I firmly believe that Wisconsin is the better team across the board.
John: Michigan State is definitely the best team the Badgers are scheduled to play this year, so yeah they have a better chance than anyone else. I like the Spartans' defense so far, and Kirk Cousins is an underrated quarterback. But I don't think the Spartans have the offensive firepower to keep up with Wisconsin. MSU won't let the Badgers score their normal 50 points or so, but they'll need to play a perfect game and take advantage of anything the Badgers give them if they want to score the upset.
Does the Russell Wilson Heisman campaign roll on this weekend, or will he struggle with the Michigan State defense?
Pete: Can't it be both? I think he'll struggle in that he won't complete 74.2% of his passes today. That said, I expect him (sadly) to complete a few throws down the field, and he should perform well enough to stay in the thick of the Heisman race.
Louis: I think he takes a step forward in the Heisman race, if anything. Every year you hear about "Heisman Moments" and Wilson hasn't had the chance to have that moment simply because his competition hasn't been up to par for the most part. This is Wisconsin's stiffest test so far and, in all honesty, probably will be all season. I have too much faith in the kid, he carries himself too well, to think that he'll crumble under pressure. In a close game I think he'll make that big play and thrust himself even further into the Heisman discussion.
John: I agree with Louis. Wilson is more than the Badgers could have hoped for when they first started to recruit him. It's strange to say, but if the Badgers get in a hole, I would still feel comfortable with the Badgers' chances. He (and the rest of the offense, too) showed they wouldn't panic in the Nebraska game, so I think he'll be able to stay calm under pressure and make the plays to help the Badgers leave their East Lansing demons behind.
Your team's biggest advantage over its opponent this week?
Pete: Since almost every statistical category favors the Badgers, I'll go with something a bit more intangible -- level of competition this season. Even though MSU lost at Notre Dame, they won at Ohio State in one of the ugliest games mankind has ever seen, and just handed Michigan their first loss of the season. Wisconsin's only played one game away from Madison, a quasi-road game in Chicago against Northern Illinois. Playing good opponents this season may not be much of an advantage (or even one at all), but when a team has been as statistically solid as UW has been, I have to take what I can get.
Louis: Wilson. End of story. Otherwise I think these teams match up pretty evenly talent-wise. Wisconsin's strength is its offensive line, Michigan State has a mean defensive front. Wisconsin's front seven is still somewhat unproven even seven weeks into the season, but so is the Spartans' offensive line. The skill positions are largely interchangeable. Wilson will be the best player on the field. He is simply indefensible when the running game is clicking because he is so dangerous throwing off the play fake. Then if all else fails, he is still incredibly mobile. Wilson is the biggest reason why the Badgers are title contenders.
John: I agree with Louis, but I'll add a caveat. The Badgers have incredible offensive diversity, in addition to Wilson. Paul Chryst will start with the running game, and if teams sell out to stop Montee Ball and James White, Wilson will look to Nick Toon, Jared Abbrederis, or Jacob Pedersen. If all of those guys are covered, Wilson can still scramble for a first down. With this Badger offense, they're never out of options.
Your team's biggest weakness this week?
Pete: The offensive line. While opposing front sevens haven't sacked Kirk Cousins many times, they've pressured him into throwing a few dumb interceptions. In the next question (foreshadowing!) I'm going to tell you that they've improved, but I'm worried that Chris Borland is going to sniff out runs at the point of attack.
Louis: This game is setting up way too much like Wisconsin's win over No. 1 Ohio State for me to be at all comfortable. Like the Badgers this year, the Buckeyes came into Camp Randall, at night, with title aspirations. They left with their dreams shattered on a night when everything seemed to go Wisconsin's way. Michigan State is an emotional team coming off their first complete game all season. East Lansing is an extremely hostile place and Wisconsin hasn't played on the road yet this season (Soldier Field doesn't count). I'm a big believer in karma, and right the now the Spartans own all of it.
John: Not going to lie - I'm concerned about the Badgers' rush defense in this game. We're still not sure if senior tackle Pat Butrym is going to play, and they have been vulnerable on the ground so far. MSU has a good stable of backs too, so that will definitely present a threat. The Badgers will need to focus on keeping MSU from having long, sustained drives that end in points. They were able to manage so far this season, but we'll see if MSU can beat the Badgers at their own game.
Score predictions and why?
Pete: I said in my game preview that MSU would win by the slimmest of margins, 21-20. I think Michigan State stymies the Wisconsin running game just enough to force Russell Wilson into a turnover or two, and MSU capitalizes. I also think the Spartan offensive line showed a lot of improvement in last week's win against Michigan, and Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell should find a few holes.
Louis: I'll go with 34-27, Wisconsin. I think the Michigan State offense really jelled last week, the line especially. People have been down on Kirk Cousins, in part based on last week, but that shouldn't be any indication because he was throwing into 30 M.P.H. winds. The Spartans will put up points and the Badgers may actually look sort of mortal on offense. That said, I think Wisconsin's offense has too many dimensions to defend and that the defense will get the couple key stops they need to win.
John: I'm going with Wisconsin 28-17. At the end of the day, the Badgers will find ways to get in the endzone. I'm not so sure about MSU's offense. The Spartan defense will hold the Badgers to a season low in points, but I don't see them having enough firepower to keep up. Also, I think the officials will be quick to throw the flag against the Spartans. The situation with "60 minutes of unnecessary roughness" and William Ghoulston will have the officials on the lookout, and questionable calls will go the Badgers way. Fair or not, that's what happens.
Final thoughts, players to watch, Big Ten smack talk?
Pete: It's going to be a beautiful night for football. Even though Michigan State will be without starting defensive end William Gholston, the defense still has plenty of great players in defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, middle linebacker Max Bullough, and cornerback Johnny Adams. I think this might be the game of the year in the Big Ten, and I can't wait for it to start?
And Big Ten smack talk? I'm not so good as smack...our morbid obesity is more intense than your state's obesity. SO THERE.How do you feel about your teams thus far this season?
Louis: For Wisconsin, tight end Jacob Pedersen doesn't get mentioned nearly enough. He has been as consistent as any pass catcher for the Badgers this season. Watch out for Bradie Ewing at fullback as well. Paul Chryst likes to call his number at least once a game on screens. As for smack talk, all I can say is that I have never been a fan of teams that don't play the game the right way. Last week's thuggery and this week's stall tactics over Will Gholston's suspension convinced me that Mark Dantonio cares more about winning football games than he does about his players.
John: I have to agree with Louis on the Dantonio situation. It's just another example of a coach willing to look the other way in order to give his team a better chance to win. And it's not like Dantonio doesn't have a track record of this kind of stuff. I'm not saying Dantonio is the only coach who would do that - but that doesn't mean he's immune from criticism. This game should be really good, and it's making me feel better about predicting a Wisconsin-Michigan State matchup in the Big Ten championship.