Big Game Hunting: Alabama, Ohio State up against it on the road

For a considerable stretch after Barry Alvarez built Wisconsin into a football power in the early 1990s, the Badgers had about as much success against the Big Ten’s marquee program — Ohio State — as realistically could’ve been hoped for. The Buckeyes still won more matchups against Wisconsin than they lost, but it was pretty even over nearly a 20-year period.

Then Urban Meyer showed up in Columbus and, well, pulled an Urban Meyer. All he has done since arriving in 2012 is win 55 of his first 59 games, including 33 of 34 in regular-season conference play. No. 2 Ohio State at No. 8 Wisconsin (7 p.m., Ch. 7) is the Badgers’ fourth crack at Meyer. Coach Paul Chryst will try to do what predecessors Gary Andersen and Bret Bielema couldn’t, and that’s tame the league’s top dog.

Last time the schools met was in the 2014 Big Ten championship game. The Buckeyes romped 59-0 en route to the national title.

The Badgers (4-1) are underdogs by a hefty 10-point spread, but they always have a chance at Camp Randall Stadium, especially at night in what’s sure to be a livewire environment.

J.T. Barrett and Ohio State will try to extend the school's winning streak against Wisconsin. (AP/Jay LaPrete)

J.T. Barrett and Ohio State will try to extend the school's winning streak against Wisconsin. (AP/Jay LaPrete)

“It’s going to be an awesome atmosphere here at night in front of our fans,” said redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook. “I can’t wait to play.”

And the Buckeyes (5-0) can’t wait to get after him. On paper, the biggest matchup is Ohio State’s running game, ranked third nationally (323.6 yards per game), against Wisconsin’s No. 6 rush defense (90.4). The reality is the Badgers have no shot to win if they can’t protect Hornibrook — who’s short on experience and escapability — but a slugger’s chance at a huge upset if they can.

Star quarterback J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes offense will have to earn every inch. Badgers hold their own on both sides of the ball, but Meyer gets ’em again — call it 24-20.

No. 1 Alabama at No. 9 Tennessee (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2) could merely be Round 1, with the teams potentially meeting again in the SEC title game. Are the Vols (5-1) ready to step up in class and go chin-to-chin with a superheavyweight? Alabama is 6-0 and, as ever, looking fit and fierce.

“I think this is the best Alabama team we’ve faced,” said coach Butch Jones, the Vols’ fourth-year coach.

Jones is 0-3 in Third Saturday in October games, and Alabama is going for its 10th straight victory in the rivalry series — but there’s no doubt the Vols are on the upswing. Their strength: running the ball with terrific duo Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. The Tide’s greatest strength: their best-in-the-land rush defense. It’ll be riveting to watch. Bama wins the game but fails to cover the 13.

Saturday’s only other Top 25 matchup — No. 12 Ole Miss at No. 22 Arkansas (6 p.m., ESPN) — is an anything-could-happen delight. Is there another program out there that gets involved in more wild nights than these two? The Hogs (4-2) have beaten the Rebels (3-2) twice in a row, including a year ago in Oxford, Miss., by a spectacular 53-52 score in overtime.

“We couldn’t stop them,” said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, “and they couldn’t stop us.”

Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly is a star, but Hogs counterpart Austin Allen — whose older brother Brandon threw for 442 yards against Ole Miss last year — has been very good. Will underdog Arkie cover the eight-point spread? Anything can happen, even a Woo Pig upset. Hogs in a nutty one.

It’s another big day in the ACC, with North Carolina State at No. 3 Clemson (11 a.m., Ch. 7) in the Atlantic division and North Carolina at No. 16 Miami (2:30 p.m., ESPN2) in the Coastal.

Last year’s game against N.C. State was a struggle for the Tigers, who won despite giving up 41 points. The Wolfpack (4-1), coming off a victory over Notre Dame, play with confidence and poise, exhibited by quarterback Ryan Finley’s zero interceptions on the season. Running back Matt Dayes is a beast. Dave Doeren’s team probably can’t win this one, but it can stay closer than 17½. Clemson wins by 10 to get to 7-0.

Both the Canes (4-1) and Tar Heels (4-2) are coming off disappointing performances. UNC was terrible in a 34-3 loss to Virginia Tech. Miami would easily be in the top 10 if it had protected a commanding lead against rival Florida State. The Canes are favored by 7½, but it’s hard to say how ready they’ll be to bounce back. Canes by just a field goal.

My favorite favorite: Oklahoma (-13) vs. Kansas State. September was rough for the Sooners, but October is off to an encouraging start. They may just roll through the Big 12 from here.

My favorite underdog: UCLA (+7) at Washington State. Just when you think Wazzu is dangerous, it wets the bed. That’s kind of been the deal since Mike Leach got there.

Last week: 5-2 straight-up, 5-2 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 33-16 straight-up; 24-23-2 vs. the spread.


Illinois at Rutgers

The facts: 11 a.m., ESPNews; 670-AM.

The records: Illinois 1-4, 0-2 Big Ten; Rutgers 2-4, 0-3 Big Ten.

The line: Illini by 6.

The story line: If you combined Wes Lunt’s passing ability with Chayce Crouch’s running ability, you’d have a pretty ideal college quarterback. Alas, each Illinois QB is limited in his own way — and the Illini were unsure who would start at Rutgers, anyway, as the week progressed and Lunt tried to work his way back from an injury. The Scarlet Knights have scored seven points total in three Big Ten games. Want to guess how many they’ve given up? Try 150. Should be some quality football on display.

Greenberg’s pick: Rutgers, 24-21.

Northwestern at Michigan State

The facts: 2:30 p.m., BTN; 720-AM.

The records: Northwestern 2-3, 1-1 Big Ten; Michigan State 2-3, 0-2 Big Ten.

The line: Spartans by 5.

The story line: It’s so strange to think a below-.500 Northwestern team might be better than big, bad MSU, but here’s the thing — the Spartans are big and, quite literally, it seems, bad. Since beating Notre Dame (like that’s so impressive), they’ve been dominated by Wisconsin and BYU and edged at Indiana. The Wildcats, coming off a bye, have had two weeks to feel good about themselves since their surprising victory at Iowa. Truth is, neither team is much to look at.

Greenberg’s pick: MSU, 17-14.

Stanford at Notre Dame

The facts: 6:30 p.m., Ch. 5; 890-AM.

The records: Stanford 3-2, Notre Dame 2-4.

The line: Irish by 3.

The story line: These are not the best of days for either team. The Irish are coming off a rain-soaked defeat at N.C. State in which they inexplicably threw (and threw) the ball despite awful conditions. What is it with this coaching staff? Meanwhile, Stanford’s quarterback situation isn’t working out and its superstar running back, Christian McCaffrey, is questionable with a leg injury. Both defenses are getting shredded, though the Cardinal “D” is superior to Notre Dame’s. It’s another chance for the Irish passing game to make the difference.

Greenberg’s pick: Stanford, 27-24.

Central Michigan at Northern Illinois

The facts: 2:30 p.m., ESPN3; 560-AM.

The records: Central Michigan 4-2, 1-1 MAC; Northern Illinois 1-5, 1-1 MAC.

The line: Chippewas by 2½.

The story line: Turns out Anthony Maddie, once NIU’s third-string quarterback, can play a little football. The problem for the Huskies has been their porous defense — and CMU, led by talented passer Cooper Rush, will be happy to take advantage. These are the same Chips who won at Oklahoma State and rallied from 28 points down to tie the game at Virginia before eventually losing. They’re not close to being a great team by MAC standards, but they’re dangerous.

Greenberg’s pick: CMU, 34-31.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.


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