While all the games across college football are huge this weekend, there is one bigger than the rest. That’s the Big Ten title game (FOX, 7:00 p.m. ET, Saturday) between No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 7 Penn State. The matchup is the crossroads of the College Football Playoff. Either team winning could have a trickle-down effect that could shake up the final four on Sunday.
So who’s got the edge? While most of the focus seems to be on Penn State, Wisconsin is actually favored, and I believe the Badgers will pull out the victory. Don’t believe me? Here are five reasons Wisconsin gets the win.
Penn State is a statistical outlier
The Nittany Lions are one of college football’s best stories, a team that limped out to a 2-2 start, only to rip off eight wins in a row. But while Penn State deserves to be here (and deserves to be in the playoff with a win), its path to the Big Ten championship game is kind of fluky.
The simple truth is that Penn State is a statistical outlier in every way imaginable, a club that is neither great offensively or defensively, yet still finds itself with a sparkling record. Overall the Nittany Lions rank 56th nationally in total offense, a number that puts them behind noted college football heavyweights like 5-7 Ole Miss, Eastern Michigan and yes, even Oregon, which just fired its coach. Defensively, the Nittany Lions are better, ranking 30th nationally in scoring defense. Still, that’s behind all six teams ahead of them in the poll.
You can still pick up wins against inferior teams when you’re not great on offense or defense. But when you’re facing a Top 10 team like Wisconsin? That’s another story altogether.
The Nittany Lions struggled against defenses the caliber of Wisconsin’s
Say what you want about coordinator Paul Chryst’s style of play (which has about as much flavor as a glass of unsweetened ice tea), but the one thing you can’t question is the Badgers’ defensive prowess. Despite facing some of the best offenses in college football (namely Michigan and Ohio State), they still ranked in the Top 10 nationally in both scoring defense and total defense.
That’s bad news for the Nittany Lions because, as mentioned above, they’re not an explosive offensive club. They especially struggled against elite defenses, tallying a miserable 191 yards of total offense against Michigan. In a win over Ohio State, they put up just 319 yards.
Going against a Wisconsin defense that allowed just 292 yards per game and a measly 13.7 points, don’t expect things to be much better.
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Wisconsin’s defensive strength will go directly against Penn State’s weakness
Obviously, Wisconsin plays great defense. But while the Badgers' numbers across the board are spectacular, they are especially stout along the defensive line. Overall, Wisconsin averaged close to three sacks a game (31 overall), highlighted by T.J. Watt, who had 9.5. That was second-best total in the Big Ten.
Those numbers would terrify any opponent, but should be especially concerning to a Penn State club that has had trouble keeping the opposing defense out of the backfield all season. The Nittany Lions have given up 22 sacks and have allowed 81 tackles for loss. 81! That ranks 103rd nationally and has to be especially scary for James Franklin because his offense’s weakness will go up against Wisconsin’s strength. And it could get ugly.
Corey Clement might be the best running back Penn State faces all year
That’s not hyperbole. Clement finished third overall in the Big Ten in rushing, trailing only Northwestern’s Justin Jackson and the Nittany Lions’ Saquon Barkley.
What’s got to be especially scary for Franklin and the Nittany Lions, however, is that Clement is hitting his stride. After a slow start (while recovering from surgery), he is has hit the 100-plus-yard mark in six of his past seven games.
The best part if you’re a Wisconsin fan? He’s putting up some of his biggest numbers in the Badgers’ biggest games. He tallied a season-high 164 yards against Ohio State, and hit 134 against a solid Iowa club a week later.
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Wisconsin is facing zero pressure
This isn’t so much a metric based on stats, but instead gut feeling: Doesn’t Penn State have to be feeling a bit more pressure?
Let’s remember that the Nittany Lions have been the focus all week entering this matchup. So many questions surround a Penn State victory: If the Nittany Lions win, will they bump Ohio State – a team they beat head-to-head – out of the final four? Where does Michigan get mixed in? Or could Penn State eliminate Washington, if the Nittany Lions win Saturday? For Wisconsin, it’s the opposite. Barring absolute chaos, most assume there’s no way Wisconsin makes the final four.
Therefore, this whole week has kind of turned into a twisted version of “The Brady Bunch.” But instead of “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha” it’s “Penn State, Penn State, Penn State.” Wisconsin is as good, has no pressure and is getting zero respect.
It will be enough to launch the Badgers to a victory Saturday night on FOX in the biggest game of the weekend.