Remember when James Franklin didn’t have the coaching chops or the staff to figure out how to score points in Happy Valley? Remember when Wisconsin’s brutal early-season schedule was too much for a team without its brainy former defensive coordinator to survive?
Well, here we are in December and the battle most likely to determine a Big Ten champion and heavily influence the College Football Playoff’s participants is between a stingy-as-usual Wisconsin rushing defense and Saquon Barkley, the league’s most valuable running back. Go ahead and make a prediction if you must, these teams are bound to find a way to prove you wrong.
Barkley, with his 5.3 yards per carry and 15 touchdowns against a Badgers’ front seven that hasn’t lost a step with new coordinator Justin Wilcox, is an easy jumping off point. It’s also far from the only intriguing part of Saturday night’s title fight (8 p.m. ET, FOX).
If Houston, is that a problem?
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook's status for Saturday’s game is yet to be determined as of Thursday morning after the first-year starter left the Badgers’ season finale with a head injury last week. Fifth-year senior Bart Houston replaced him and closed out a win against Minnesota without having to worry about any rust.
If any conference champion contender can afford to lose its quarterback this week, though, it’s probably Wisconsin. No one has to remind the Badgers’ upperclassmen that a backup doesn’t spell doom in Indianapolis (Cardale Jones certainly didn’t have any problems against Wisconsin a couple of years ago). And Houston comes into Saturday’s game with a lot more experience than most in his role.
After losing his job to Hornibrook in September, Houston has been a regular contributor off the bench during the second half of the season. He’s posted a better completion percentage (63.5) than the starter in his limited passing attempts during the past six games. Wisconsin’s formula for winning should be running the ball and playing great defense no matter who is under center this weekend, but Houston deserves credit for staying engaged and ready for duty when he lost his job despite having an undefeated record at the time.
Penn State’s unexpected offensive prowess hasn’t been solely Barkley’s doing. New offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, a snub among a tough class in this year’s Broyles Award finalists, said maybe the most important step to getting his group up to full speed this season has been the increased threat of the read-option with quarterback Trace McSorley.
McSorley’s ability to dodge defenders has kept opponents honest and provided Barkley with the creases he needs. With a still-growing offensive line that was riddled with injuries this season, it’s doubtful that Penn State’s running backs would have the opportunity to make any plays without some help from McSorley.
The last time Wisconsin’s defense faced a dual threat with the same potential as McSorley to use both tools was probably against Ohio State. J.T. Barrett ran for two touchdowns and a team-high 92 yards in an overtime win. The only player, regardless of position, to run for more yards against the Badger defense was LSU’s Leonard Fournette in the season opener. It’s worth keeping an eye on how Wilcox & Co. scheme against a mobile quarterback.
No matter the outcome Saturday night, this game might present one of the stickiest tests the College Football Playoff selection committee has faced to date. There will be eager audiences in Ohio and Michigan tuning in to see how things play out in Indianapolis.
No. 2 Ohio State appears to be safely in the clubhouse with an 11-1 record and a couple of quality wins under its belt, but there is no knowing for certain how much the committee members will value a conference championship. A convincing Nittany Lions’ win (after beating the Buckeyes in the regular season) might not knock Ohio State out of the top four, but it should do enough to at least make for a very nervous night of unrest in Columbus before the final rankings are announced Sunday morning.
Other conference title games will probably be a more stressful watching experience for Michigan’s team and fans -- the Wolverines need Clemson or Washington to lose this weekend to have a real shot of playing for a championship -- but the Big Ten game will also serve some relevance in Ann Arbor. The question is who should they be rooting for?
One logical argument would dictate that a Penn State win, coupled with an upset elsewhere this weekend, gives Michigan a strong argument for the fourth playoff spot. The Wolverines did, after all, beat the Nittany Lions by 39 points earlier this season. Then again, Franklin & Co. would have a decent claim to a playoff spot if they win and the Big Ten is going to get two of them. Could the committee take two teams from the same league and leave out its conference champ?
If Wisconsin wins, Michigan and Ohio State will have both have victories against the Big Ten champ and the potential of wins against another conference champ if Colorado and Oklahoma also win this weekend. Is that a better case to have the Buckeyes and Wolverines both land in the playoff? It’s hard to say what the committee would think. Maybe it’s best just to enjoy the game and let the chips fall where they may.