For the first time since its blowout loss to then-No. 2 Penn State, the Michigan football team is back in the College Football Playoff rankings.
On the heels of a three-game winning streak, the Wolverines have checked in as the 24th-best team in the country in the eyes of the College Football Playoff Committee. While the opponents Michigan has faced between then and now are relatively small fish, the Wolverines will attempt to fry a big one this weekend.
Saturday, Michigan (5-2 Big Ten, 8-2 overall) will travel to Madison to take on No. 5 Wisconsin (7-0, 10-0), eager to redeem its record against top competition.
Here’s how the Wolverines match up with the Badgers on Saturday.
Michigan pass offense vs Wisconsin pass defense
Redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters may have received his first taste of game action on the road last Saturday at Maryland, but he will have the biggest test of his young career in Madison.
Michigan has faced plenty of stingy defenses this year, but none can hold a candle to Wisconsin. The Badgers have the top-ranked defense in the country, and they also rank first in both team passing efficiency defense and rushing defense.
Wisconsin allows an average of just 247.6 yards per game and has notched 15 interceptions while allowing merely 11 touchdowns. The Badgers are the only team in the nation holding opponents to a passer rating below 95, as they have given up just eight scores through the air.
If Wisconsin’s defense posts even an average performance, Peters could be in for a long day.
Michigan run offense vs Wisconsin run defense
The Wolverines’ ground game has been on a good run of late, but it will be at less than full strength at an inopportune time.
Junior Karan Higdon and fifth-year senior Ty Isaac are both dealing with injuries, though the severity of each has been kept relatively under wraps. Higdon left the game against Maryland and did not return, while Isaac has missed Michigan’s past two contests.
Whether or not they end up suiting up against the Badgers, the load will be left to sophomore Chris Evans. Though Evans has come into his stride in recent weeks, Wisconsin’s rushing defense is even better than its passing defense. Opponents average a measly 81.5 yards rushing and have scored just three touchdowns against the Badgers this season.
The Wolverines’ resurgent ground game may come to a screeching halt Saturday.
Wisconsin pass offense vs Michigan pass defense
If there is one area of the game in which Michigan can gain the upper hand, it will be up to its secondary to make it happen.
The Wolverines aren’t far behind Wisconsin in team passing efficiency defense, ranking third in the nation while allowing one less touchdown than their counterpart through the air this year. Michigan is second in passing yards allowed, as opponents have gained an average of just 144.5 yards.
Badger quarterback Alex Hornibrook has thrown for 17 total touchdowns in addition to an average of 186.3 yards per game, but he leads an offense that places more of an emphasis on the running game.
The Wolverines will have a chance to take advantage of this matchup, and they can’t afford to waste it.
Wisconsin run offense vs Michigan run defense
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley deserves all the plaudits he receives, but Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor isn’t far behind as one of the best backs in the Big Ten.
Considering how Barkley ran all over Michigan to the tune of 108 yards and two touchdowns, that isn’t a good sign for the Wolverines.
The Badgers are a ground-and-pound team, and Taylor leads the charge. He averages 152.5 rushing yards per game and has scored 12 touchdowns on his own. Michigan has a strong defense, allowing an average of just 110.3 rushing yards, but it might not be enough to stop Taylor.
In a battle of two highly-ranked defenses, the Wolverines’ unit doesn’t quite measure up.
This phase of the game will be a decided by a contest of kickers.
Redshirt freshman Quinn Nordin has endured a rough stretch of late, missing three consecutive field goals and two extra points as well to drop his season record to 14-for-19.
Wisconsin kicker Rafael Gaglianone may have been tested less often, but he maintains markedly better, making 10 of his 12 field goals, good for an 80-percent completion rate.
Earlier this season, it would have been hard to bet against Michigan’s special teams unit, but with Nordin’s recent struggles, that is no longer the case.
The Wolverines have a lot on the line in this game, as they would drop out of the Big Ten championship picture with a loss.
But the Badgers have a lot more at stake. An undefeated season and a spot in the College Football Playoff hang in the balance. Camp Randall Stadium, one of the most energetic environments in college football, will likely be an even more hostile atmosphere for Michigan than that of Beaver Stadium last month.
While the Wolverines will seek to play the spoiler, the odds are stacked against them.
Prediction: Michigan 24, Wisconsin 31