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Sunday, September 24, 2023

Breaking down Wisconsin's new Big Ten schedule

Wisconsin's conference-only schedule now features a tenth game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

The Big Ten schedule reveal could not have gone better for the Wisconsin Badgers. 

Typically, the Badgers play nine conference games, with three being “crossover games” against opponents in the Big Ten East. Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, Wisconsin will instead play ten conference games, with an additional crossover game against a Big Ten East opponent. 

That opponent? 

The Rutgers Scarlet Knights, winless in conference play since a 31-24 win against Maryland on November 4th, 2017.

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren released the full conference schedule this Wednesday, which included a reveal of every Big Ten team’s additional opponent as well as venue changes for select games. Several of those venue changes applied to Wisconsin, with a home game against Nebraska moved to Lincoln and an away game at Purdue moved to Madison. 

The changes to the schedule leave Wisconsin with by far the conference’s easiest path to Indianapolis. The Badgers avoid the two best teams in the conference (on paper) in Ohio State and Penn State, and play the consensus worst two teams in the East in Maryland and Rutgers. 

The Badgers will open as heavy favorites in their first three games, vs. Indiana, at Northwestern, and at Nebraska. Indiana will pose more of a threat than many expect, and the Hoosiers, led by true sophomore quarterback Michael Penix, will look to build on an eight-win 2019 season with a quick start at Camp Randall. Penix, who set an IU program record with a 68.8% completion percentage, will lead a Hoosier offense that should test the resolve of the Badger defense right out of the gate. 

Following the opener against Indiana, Wisconsin will travel to Ryan Field for a clash at Northwestern, a venue that has haunted the Badgers recently. Wisconsin is just 1-5 in Evanston since the turn of the century, including an embarrassing 31-17 defeat in 2018. Still, Wisconsin will be heavy favorites against the Wildcats by the time the game rolls around. 

Wisconsin has struggled against Northwestern as of late, but the same can’t be said for Nebraska, who the Badgers have beaten seven consecutive times, including a comfortable 37-21 win in Lincoln last year. Nebraska was a trendy pick to win the Big Ten West last year, but failed to take a second year leap under coach Scott Frost. The Cornhuskers have recruited very well recently, but haven’t seen their success in the recruiting rankings translate on the field just yet. Nebraska is particularly weak in the trenches, which makes them a good matchup for Wisconsin, who returns considerable talent on both the offensive line and in the front seven. 

Week four will be one one of Wisconsin’s biggest tests -- the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe against Minnesota. The Golden Gophers, coming off an 11 win 2019, have been a trendy pick to win the Big Ten West. Some of their preseason hype has dissipated, however, since receiver Rashod Bateman chose to opt out of the 2020 season. Bateman, a prospective first round pick in the 2021 NFL draft, had 1219 yards and 11 TDs (second and third in the Big Ten respectively) for Minnesota last season, including 147 yards and a TD against Wisconsin last season. 

Even without Bateman, the Gophers remain a formidable opponent. Tanner Morgan, Minnesota’s QB, may very well be the second best passer in the conference. He’ll be looking for revenge, as the Gophers were beaten 38-17 by Wisconsin in primetime on ESPN last season. 

The Badgers are expected to enter this game at 3-0, and if they do so and get by Minnesota, they’ll be in very strong position to win the Big Ten West. Iowa, another potential competitor, has to play both Ohio State and Penn State in their crossover games, which gives the Gophers and Badgers a significant leg up in the race for the West. Given the weakness of the Badgers schedule, a win against Minnesota may very well deal a crippling blow to the Gophers and end the race for the B1G west before the calendar even turns to October. 

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Wisconsin will travel to College Park to take on Maryland in week five. Mike Locksley has generated some momentum on the recruiting trail for the Terrapins, but the program is very clearly several years away from seriously competing against the titans of the Big Ten. The Terps’ only conference win came over Rutgers last year, and the Badgers shouldn’t have much trouble against Maryland barring a miracle turnaround. 

Wisconsin will host Purdue for the second consecutive season, with this year’s contest being held in week six. The Badgers cruised past Purdue 45-24 last year, and will dodge the 5’9” bullet that is receiver Rondale Moore for a second consecutive year. Moore, who burst onto the college football scene with a 170 yard and 2 TD performance in an upset win over Ohio State in 2018, chose to opt out of the 2020 season and prepare for the NFL draft, where he is expected to be an early-round pick. Without Moore as a receiving threat, Purdue will count on receiver David Bell, who had over 1000 yards last year as a freshman, to provide offensive firepower. 

After week six, the Badgers will have the first of two BYE weeks. The Big Ten added an additional BYE week this season in order to provide flexibility in case of COVID complications. 

Following the first BYE, the Badgers will host Illinois, who knocked off Wisconsin last year in one of the most shocking upsets in program history. Lovie Smith’s team was bowl eligible last season for the first time since 2014 thanks in large part to their 24-23 victory against the Badgers last season. Revenge will certainly be on Jack Coan’s mind, as the Wisconsin quarterback threw a crucial interception in the closing minutes of last year’s game to set up the game winning field goal for the Illini. 

After the Illinois game, the Badgers enter the most crucial stretch of their 2020 season. It begins with a trip to Ann Arbor to face the Michigan Wolverines, where Wisconsin has won just one time since 1994. This season appears to be an excellent chance to exorcise their Big House demons, however. Wisconsin handled the Wolverines last season at Camp Randall, dominating from start to finish in a 35-14 victory. Michigan faces even more question marks in 2020. 

QB Shea Patterson graduated this year, and Michigan will roll with either Dylan McCaffery or Joe Milton at quarterback this upcoming season. Neither is an ideal option, and with the loss of several key offensive linchpins, including first-round selection Cesar Ruiz and fifth-round selection Donovan Peoples-Jones, no one knows what the Michigan offense will look like this upcoming year.

The Badgers are preseason favorites in every game on their schedule but this one (three-point underdogs), but the Badgers, who are significantly more experienced, will certainly like their chances in this one regardless. 

Wisconsin gets another BYE following their all-important duel at Michigan, but will be thrust into an extremely tough battle in Iowa City immediately after. Iowa has an extraordinary record at Kinnick Stadium in November, but have been unable to edge the Badgers in recent conflicts, with Wisconsin winning four straight in the rivalry and five straight in Iowa City.

Wisconsin won 24-22 at Camp Randall in 2019, although the game was more lopsided than that score indicates. The 2020 Hawkeyes, however, will look entirely different, with QB Spencer Petras taking over for recently-graduated Nate Stanley. There’s high expectations for Petras among the Hawkeyes coaching staff and fanbase, and Iowa also returns their leading RB in Tyler Goodson and leading WR in Imhir Smith-Marsette. The Hawkeyes certainly have the roster to compete with the Badgers both in this game and for the Big Ten West crown, although their brutal crossover stretch will make the latter goal a serious challenge for Iowa. 

Wisconsin’s tenth and final game will be in Madison against a hapless Rutgers team. The Scarlet Knights hired Greg Schiano this offseason, a program legend who led Rutgers to an 11-win season in 2006. 2020 will look very different than 2006 however, and the Badgers should have no issue in this one. 

Overall, the schedule is about as ideal as it gets for Wisconsin. If the Badgers fail to win the Big Ten West and return to the conference championship game, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves. Minnesota and Iowa should pose a challenge, and the game at Michigan will certainly be a test, but it’s easy to envision a scenario in which Wisconsin enters the Big Ten Championship undefeated, as they did in 2017. 

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