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Though nothing is guaranteed in an iffy conference year, the winner of Saturday's game will take a big leg up in the Leaders Division race for a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Both Wisconsin and Purdue had chances to make statements in their conference openers, and both bungled their opportunities. Wisconsin's collapse against Nebraska was picked to the bone on this site, so if you need a refresher just go back about a week in the archives.
Purdue's 44-13 throttling at home against Michigan was a sucker punch for a slightly different reason. The Boilermakers were 3-1 with only a three-point loss to Notre Dame on the road, and seemed poised to make a run at the Leaders Division title with Wisconsin weakened, and Penn State and Ohio State out of the race. Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit both picked the Boilers to win over the Wolverines on Gameday, but then disaster struck. Michigan racked up over 300 yards rushing, lighting up what had been a stout defensive front, and left no chance for an inconsistent offense to keep up.
The losses highlighted the glaring inadequacies in both teams, and as we enter what may essentially be a semifinal to the Big Ten Championship Game, neither the Badgers nor the Boilermakers are riding high on confidence. Somebody will win, however, and take the inside track to Indianapolis.
Hammer And Rails called it the most important game of the season, and it's hard to disagree from a division standpoint. The winner will not only earn a boost in the standings, but hold an all-important tiebreaker should the two teams match conference records. The loser will have to be two games better over the rest of the regular season to make it to Indy, meaning if Wisconsin wins and closes out 3-2, Purdue would have to win every single one of its remaining games.
The remaining schedules are comparable. Both teams still have Ohio State, Penn State, Minnesota and Indiana left to play, and Wisconsin's tilt vs. Michigan State doesn't look much more difficult than Purdue's matchup with Iowa at this point. Nothing is guaranteed in an erratic conference, but there is a very good chance that Saturday's winner will play for a spot in the Rose Bowl later this season.
[Note: This all assumes that Illinois and Indiana continue to be who we think they are, of course.]
Mike talks with Hammer And Rails about Saturday's matchup, predicting a win by a healthy 10-14 points.
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