Wisconsin football schedule: Badgers entering the danger zone

Matthew Holst

Wisconsin is seemingly finished playing marquee matchups, but the five-game slate to end the season won't give the Badgers any opportunity to rest. Iowa, BYU, Indiana, Minnesota and Penn State all have the potential to wreck Wisconsin's BCS chances.

So here we are: me, you and a 5-2 football team. Wisconsin sits at No. 24 in the latest BCS standings, which isn't especially impressive, but intelligent minds have been quick to recognize the Badgers as a team of merit. Jason Kirk caged Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl with Florida State, for example, though we shouldn't entertain this prospect for long. Never mind tempting fate with five tricky games left on the schedule, Jameis Winston's is bringing Scorched Earth with a Smile® to the masses and I'm not sure any amount of Wisconsin's happy, reckless swag can stop him.

Let's talk about the path Wisconsin must conquer to achieve such a (dream? nightmare?) scenario, because while Wisconsin appears to be above the conference flotsam, the Big Ten is a weird place and the Badgers' best two games have arguably been losses now that Northwestern has nose-dived.

On the horizon are five teams Wisconsin will be favored against that have played well enough at times to potentially upset the Badgers. They are brawny (Minnesota, Iowa), explosive (Indiana), proud (Penn State) and/or downright good (BYU), and collectively they make up Wisconsin's toughest stretch of the season.

The slate:

@ Iowa

Best performance: L, 34-24 at Ohio State

Jake Rudock threw a gorgeous pass to Jake Duzey down the right sideline for an 85-yard touchdown that tied the game at 24 apiece at the end of the third quarter. The touchdown pass was Rudock's third of the game in what should be considered his best performance of the season given the magnitude of the matchup. Damon Bullock and Mark Weisman were effective, too. The offense feels like it has the pieces to be solid if the coaching staff lets it.

The defense had a bad day, but it's been darn good otherwise, so let's give the unit a mulligan against the No. 4 team in the country.

Where it can exploit Wisconsin: You couldn't conjure up a more no-frills team in your most restless fever dream, but on paper Iowa isn't all bad. The team has defended the run well when a mobile quarterback hasn't been involved and the offense has the pieces to put together a balanced attack. At Kinnick Stadium, this is a dangerous game against a team with a sudden shot of confidence coming off a win.

BYU

Best performance: W, 37-20 vs. Boise State

Tough to pick just one because the Cougars have been playing excellent football for a while now. The shellacking on Texas certainly deserves mention. The most recent win gets the nod because of how well Taysom Hill threw the ball: 27-of-41, 339 yards, three touchdowns and zero picks. His improvement from Week 1 to now has been astounding.

Where it can exploit Wisconsin: Hill's most recent performance is a better indication of the player he is than the duds he threw at the start of the season. Up-tempo, running spread-options are awfully hard to defend. Wisconsin hasn't truly faced anything like it this season, and BYU will have had two weeks to prepare for Dave Aranda's defense.

Always worth mentioning: linebacker Kyle Van Noy is insanely good.

Indiana

Best performance: W, 44-24 vs. Penn State

You should know by now that Indiana can score points in a flash. Kevin Wilson's offense currently ranks No. 2 in the offensive FEI ratings through this past weekend. The Penn State game was special because the Hoosiers actually showed some semblance of a defense. The Nittany Lions managed 410 total yards of offense, but stalled several times deep in Hoosier territory.

Where it can exploit Wisconsin: The Hoosiers have given up at least 41 points to every other non-FCS team they have played this season, so the defensive performance against Penn State should be considered a stark outlier. The offensive output is far from a surprise, however. When Missouri and Michigan State held Indiana relatively in check, they still gave up 28 points each. Indiana followed those outings by obliterating the defenses of Penn State and Michigan, respectively.

Wisconsin will be ready for Indiana's tempo coming off the BYU game, but the secondary is still very green. Sojourn Shelton and co. will be tested big-time against an excellent corps of wideouts.

@ Minnesota

Best performance: W, 34-23 vs. Nebraska

Minnesota was given up for dead by many after a 42-13 loss to Michigan that really wasn't as lopsided as the score indicated. Two straight wins including a hurt on Nebraska has the Gophers' fan base suddenly feeling confident again. Nebraska's defense has admittedly been shaky all season, but Minnesota was able to tally up 430 total yards with an offensive gameplan not dissimilar to Wisconsin's M.O. There was plenty of pre-snap motion, downhill running by committee and downfield passing.

Where it can exploit Wisconsin: Minnesota won't throw anything wildly unpredictable at Wisconsin, but as with Iowa, the Gophers have proven themselves competent and they have the benefit of playing at home. If the Gophers keep winning, there is going to be a lot of excitement surrounding the Nov. 23 matchup and the chance to end a nine-game losing streak.

Penn State

Best performance: L, 34-31 vs. UCF

I would have gone with the 43-40 win over Michigan in quadruple overtime if I hadn't seen the game. I award Penn State no points for trying to lose a game and failing.

The UCF loss, meanwhile, doesn't look as bad in hindsight. Granted, it wasn't a good performance. The Golden Knights essentially held the Nittany Lions away at arms length from the second quarter on. The game was evidence enough that Christian Hackenberg, Allen Robinson and Zach Zwinak are a formidable offensive trio, however.

Where it can exploit Wisconsin: At a glance, Penn State is the worst team remaining on the schedule for the Badgers. At least, the Nittany Lions have failed to look impressive in the same way the four teams above have at some point. Bill O'Brien and co. are a prideful lot, however. The chance to knock Wisconsin out of the BCS bowl picture could make Penn State's season.

Of course, that's assuming the Badgers don't get caught napping over the course of a four-game slate featuring two games against disparate, fast-paced offenses sandwiched between road games against rivals. At least Wisconsin had some reprieve between Arizona State and Ohio State. It'll receive none from here on out.

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