The Saturday night college football showdown on ABC involves two teams from the Big Ten battling two very different levels of adversity.
Michigan has lost two games in a row after opening its season with an encouraging 49-24 victory at a ranked Minnesota team. But the Wolverines were flat the following week in hosting in-state rival, Michigan State, coming off an embarrassing upset loss at home to Rutgers. The Spartans left Ann Arbor with a 27-24 victory as a 23-point underdog. Perhaps still shellshocked from that loss, the Wolverines traveled to Bloomington last week to face an upstart Indiana team that had already upset Penn State. The Hoosiers dominated in a 38-21 upset victory as a 4.5-point underdog. That leaves Michigan returning home with a 1-2 record and searching for answers.
What is happening to the Wolverines’ program in the sixth season under head coach Jim Harbaugh? Michigan returned nine starters from the team that finished 9-4 last season after getting pounded in their final two games against Ohio State and Alabama. Redshirt junior quarterback Dylan McCaffrey then left the program in the fall. Soon after, wide receiver Nico Collins and cornerback Ambry Thomas opted-out of the season to prepare for the NFL draft. Those two players were probably the top-two NFL prospects on the roster. The departures have left the Wolverines young and inexperienced.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Joe Milton has not been the problem for this team. He is completing 60.7% of his passes after three games for 869 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions while averaging 8.1 yards-per-attempt. The 6’5", 245-lb signal-caller has also rushed for 102 yards with a touchdown in 25 carries. There was speculation that McCaffrey left the program because Milton had passed him on the depth chart in the summer, where he spent quarantine time practicing in Ann Arbor with a handful of teammates.
Michigan lacked balance on offense last week as they ran the ball only 18 times for 13 yards. Yet falling behind by a 24-7 halftime score to the Hoosiers explains why the Wolverines abandoned their running game. Many of the problems with this team fall squarely on the decline of their defense. Defensive coordinator Don Brown’s unit allowed 20.7 points-per-game last season while holding their opponents to 307.2 yards-per-game, which ranked 11th in the nation. Michigan is allowing 29.7 points-per-game this year, with opponents generating 411.7 yards-per-game. The loss of Thomas has left the Wolverines inexperienced at both cornerback positions, which is where opposing offenses are taking full advantage. Michigan has allowed 665 passing yards in their last two games.
Wisconsin's biggest challenge so far this season has been dealing with COVID. The Badgers convincingly won their opening game with a 45-7 victory against Illinois. With senior quarterback Jack Coan out indefinitely with a foot injury, redshirt freshman Graham Mertz stepped-up to complete 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards along with five touchdown passes in the victory. However, he tested positive for COVID the next day, which began a cavalcade of positive tests inside the program, which included sixth-year head coach Paul Chryst.
The team has been idle the last two weeks, with games against Nebraska and Purdue canceled. Seventeen players and another 13 staff members have tested positive for COVID since the victory over the Fighting Illini, with four players still in quarantine as of Tuesday. Mertz has returned to practice this week, but he remains questionable to start due to what Chryst describes as dependent on his level of preparation for this game.
Wisconsin returned 15 starters from the team that finished 10-4 last season after a 28-27 loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl. The Badgers have been a trendy CFB playoff semifinal pick given their relatively easy path to the Big Ten championship game. Those heightened expectations assumed that Coan would eventually return to the field under center (although Mertz is the highest-rated quarterback recruit in program history). Wisconsin now faces the additional hurdle of playing at least six regular-season to be even eligible to play in the conference championship game given Big Ten rules in-place this season.
Michigan is outside the top-25 rankings for the first time since the end of the 2017 season. Wisconsin ranks 13th in the latest AP poll. The Badgers dominated the Wolverines at the line of scrimmage last year in a 35-14 victory in Madison as a 3-point favorite.
Wisconsin is a 4.5-point road favorite at BetOnline
, with the total set at 54. The ABC broadcast begins at 7:30 PM ET.