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Big Game Hunting: It’s Illinois’ Bret Bielema against the Badgers — no matter what he says

Outside the bubbles of the 1-3 Badgers and the 2-4 Illini, this game is an interesting one for one simple reason: Bielema, who coached three straight Wisconsin teams to Rose Bowls before leaving for Arkansas, is back on the field with the Red and White.

Maryland v Illinois
Bielema against the Badgers? It’s kind of a big deal.
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Understand this: Wisconsin (-11) at Illinois (2:30 p.m., BTN, 890-AM) isn’t about anything other than two college football teams going at it on a fall Saturday.

It certainly isn’t about Illini coach Bret Bielema taking a crack at the Badgers, whom he coached from 2006 to 2012.

At least, that’s what Bielema wants us all to believe.

‘‘This game is about the University of Illinois football vs. the University of Wisconsin football,’’ he said this week. That’s what it’s about; that’s what’s been driven. My preparation for any game is the exact same.’’

Maybe so on the preparation part, but come on. Outside the bubbles of the 1-3 Badgers and the 2-4 Illini, this game is an interesting one for one simple reason: Bielema, who coached three Wisconsin teams in a row to Rose Bowls before leaving for Arkansas, is back on the field with the Red and White.

This time, he’ll go against them. He’ll go against his former offensive coordinator, too. Paul Chryst entered the season with a highly ranked team, but his offense is in a free-fall and the pressure is on him like never before. Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz is questionable with a chest injury. His play has been unquestionably shoddy since he lit up the Illini for five touchdown passes — with only one incompletion — in the 2020 opener.

If Mertz doesn’t go, it’ll be Chase Wolf. It almost doesn’t matter. The Badgers’ running game is a shell of its usual self, and the offensive line isn’t giving anyone time in the pocket. If not for an elite defensive front, this team would have nothing to hang its hat on.

Illinois has to run the ball with Chase Brown and all hands on deck anyway because its veteran line has under-delivered and quarterback Brandon Peters has done nothing to rise above it. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which Bielema picks up career victory No. 100 unless the Badgers pretty much hand it to him.

Winner has a semblance of bowl hope. Loser has no hope. Is it worth mentioning that Illinois beat the Badgers the last time they were in town? It was Lovie Smith’s best victory in five forgettable seasons in Champaign.

Nah, not worth it. Badgers, 19-13.


Northern Illinois (+12½) at Toledo (11 a.m., CBSSN, 560-AM): Remember the early 2010s, when the Huskies owned this MAC West rivalry? Times have changed. The Rockets have many ways to score and play defense, too. They win by 17.

Oklahoma v Kansas State
Rattler needs a big game.
Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

No. 6 Oklahoma (-3) vs. No. 21 Texas (11 a.m., Ch. 7): Sooners QB Spencer Rattler needs this stage to get his groove back, and what a stage it is. If you’ve never been to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas for one of these games, put it at the top of your bucket list. Boomer, 31-24.

No. 13 Arkansas (+5½) at No. 17 Mississippi (11 a.m., ESPN): We learned last weekend that neither team — the Hogs, who were dominated at Georgia, or the Rebels, who were handled by Alabama — is an SEC title threat. Didn’t we kind of know that already? We did. Ole Miss has more staying power, though, and wins by 10.

No. 2 Georgia (-15½) at No. 18 Auburn (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): Auburn’s offense is QB Bo Nix scrambling around in hopes of making something out of nothing. Against the best defense in the land? Please. Dogs, 35-16.

No. 4 Penn State (+1½) at No. 3 Iowa (3 p.m., Fox-32): Come on, which of these teams is more fraudulent? There’s no way these are two of the best four in the country. The Nittany Lions have all kinds of athletes, but they aren’t Ohio State. The Hawkeyes are rough and tough, but they aren’t Ohio State. Take the Buckeyes. Sorry, the Hawkeyes — 20-13.

No. 14 Notre Dame (pick ’em) at Virginia Tech (6:30 p.m., ACC, 780-AM): The Irish were exposed last weekend as a non-playoff contender. The Hokies aren’t one, either, but they’re always scary in Blacksburg. Tough one. Hokies in overtime.

My favorite favorite: No. 9 Michigan (-3) at Nebraska (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7): The Huskers have been coming on sort of strong, but they can’t match the Wolverines’ horses. Wait, isn’t that a terribly mixed metaphor? Horses by 10. Neigh.

My favorite underdog: Texas A&M (+18) vs. No. 1 Alabama (7 p.m., Ch. 2): This is a bet on Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher. It was supposed to be a top-five matchup, but Fisher’s QB play has been disastrous. His defense, though? It’s by the far the best the Tide have faced. Close game won by Alabama, of course.

Last week: 7-2 straight-up, 5-4 against the spread.

Season to date: 34-14 straight-up, 29-19 against the spread.