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Big Game Hunting: Does Northwestern have a little something — again — for Wisconsin?

If the Wildcats win it, they could soar into the top 10 and start thinking about running the table in an eight-game, conference-only regular season.

Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats have won three of their last four home games against the Badgers.
Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats have won three of their last four home games against the Badgers.
Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Northwestern has one of the best defenses in the country.

Wisconsin has the best defense in the Big Ten and maybe — no, probably — in all the land.

But don’t take my word for any of it. This comes straight from the mouths of the team’s coaches, Pat Fitzgerald and Paul Chryst. Each lavished praise on the other’s team in the run-up to what has shaped up as the game of the year in the Big Ten West. The flattery game was as strong as anything that might unfold Saturday at Ryan Field.

‘‘We’re playing a great football team,’’ Fitzgerald said of the 2-0 Badgers.

‘‘Every game against them is a challenge,’’ Chryst said of the 4-0 Wildcats.

The reality is that we’ll have a far clearer picture of each team after No. 10 Wisconsin (-7½) at No. 19 Northwestern (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7, 720-AM) meets its destiny. The Badgers were brilliant in bookending a pair of COVID-canceled games with a 45-7 trouncing of Illinois and a 48-11 humiliation of Michigan, but how much can 120 minutes definitively tell us? The Wildcats have answered the bell four times — impressively, for sure — but they’re 0-0 against ranked foes.

This is a mighty big one, though. If the Wildcats win it, they could soar into the top 10 and start thinking about running the table in an eight-game, conference-only regular season. Only Michigan State, Minnesota and Illinois remain on the schedule, and they’re a combined 3-9.

If the Badgers win it, they’ll be right where they want and always expect to be: in full control. Except with a pandemic surrounding their every move, which doesn’t sound much like control at all.

By the way, the Badgers’ defense? It hasn’t been any better than their offense, which is led by redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz, a player with nearly as much buzz around him as J.J. Watt, Russell Wilson, Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon or Jonathan Taylor ever generated in Madison.

‘‘He’s probably got the highest completion percentage in the country, if not the highest,’’ Fitzgerald said.

Wisconsin v Michigan
Mertz has been on fire.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Mertz is fifth, actually, at 74.4%. He has thrown for 375 yards and seven touchdowns, with no interceptions. He’ll confront a Wildcats defense that’s much stouter than Illinois’ and much more interested than Michigan’s. We’ll have a far clearer picture of him after this game, too.

Fitzgerald’s teams always have a little something for Wisconsin. Even last season, when the Badgers were stellar and the Wildcats were bound for the West cellar, the score in Madison was only 24-15. The Wildcats have won three of the last four games between the teams in Evanston.

‘‘They’re as complete a team as I’ve seen on tape,’’ Fitzgerald said.

Badgers get it done, 27-17.


Illinois (+15½) at Nebraska (11 a.m., FS1, 890-AM): Huskers quarterback Adrian Martinez was responsible for a combined 791 yards and seven touchdowns in victories against the Illini the last two seasons. Naturally, he has been unseated as the starter by Luke McCaffrey. What in the world of alleged defensive mastermind Lovie Smith is going to happen this time?

‘‘No one has cycled through quarterbacks more than we have,’’ Smith said, ‘‘but it’s good to see somebody else playing more than one guy.’’

The Illini have been forced to play four quarterbacks this season. Second-stringer Isaiah Williams ran wild on Rutgers last week, but No. 1 Brandon Peters is back from his bout with COVID-19. Options are on the table offensively. Huskers, 42-31.

No. 9 Indiana (+20½) at No. 3 Ohio State (11 a.m., Ch. 2): Is this the game of the year in the Big Ten East? Why, yes, it is. The Hoosiers are better than they’ve been in forever, but this is next-level duty. Buckeyes, 52-24.

No. 7 Cincinnati (-6) at UCF (2:30 p.m., ESPN): It’s a must-win for the Bearcats if they’re going to get into the New Year’s Six (and maybe the playoff), but the Knights are pretty spectacular offensively. Upset alert.

No. 14 Oklahoma State (+7) at No. 18 Oklahoma (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7): On the ol’ hate-o-meter, few things top the ‘‘Bedlam’’ series. The two-loss Sooners aren’t playoff-bound, but they’ve improved frighteningly in the last four weeks. Oklahoma by plenty.

No. 20 USC (-3) at Utah (9:30 p.m., ESPN): Who are these Utes, anyway? They’re the last Power Five team to take the field — thanks, coronavirus — and there’s something about rust and facing this high-powered Trojans passing game that doesn’t smell very prosperous. USC, 31-24.

My favorite favorite: LSU (-2) at Arkansas (11 a.m., SEC Network): The spread last year was more than 40. The title-bound Tigers won by a mere 36. LSU kind of stinks, but this line is an overcorrection.

My favorite underdog: Penn State (+2½) vs. Iowa (2:30 p.m., BTN): Nittany Lions coach James Franklin, a hard-to-believe 0-4 this season, is at that point where every starter’s job is on the line. That’s good motivation for a team that still has lots of talent.

Last week: 8-0 straight-up, 5-3 against the spread.

Season to date: 24-10 straight-up, 17-16-1 against the spread.