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How the West will be won: Northwestern, Wisconsin battle to move to the front

Why do I get the feeling you’re laughing at me already?

Yes, at me. Definitely not with me — not after my 2-6 performance last week picking against the spread. It was disastrous. It was humiliating. It cracked whatever credibility I had (be nice!) down to the foundation.

I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. Don’t quote me on that.

How big is No. 20 Wisconsin (-6½) at Northwestern (11 a.m., Fox-32, 720-AM)? So big, the destiny of the Big Ten West may hang in the balance. Then again, something similar could be said about both Purdue (+1½) at Michigan State (11 a.m., ESPN) and No. 18 Iowa (+6½) at No. 17 Penn State (2:30 p.m., ESPN).

Can Northwestern keep Clayton Thorson upright and pull off an upset against Wisconsin? (AP/Morry Gash)

All four of those West squads — Northwestern, Wisconsin, Purdue and Iowa — have a single loss in the conference standings. By my math, that makes it a four-horse race to win the division and represent it in the league title game in Indianapolis. If the West isn’t going to be quite as strong as the East, it might as well be as intriguing as possible.

Yes, Saturday is moving day in the West. Move ahead with another clutch “W,” or move back and likely be left behind for good.

Northwestern has four league victories, one more than each of the other three. An upset of the heavyweight Badgers — talk about moving ahead — would put the Wildcats within sniffing range of a first-ever appearance in the title game. Pat Fitzgerald’s team has a tiebreaker edge over Purdue, which it knocked off in the season opener, though it still must play in Iowa City on Nov. 10.

“We’re playing an outstanding football team,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s Big Ten play — get used to it.”

But there’s only one opponent like the Badgers, who long have set the bar when it comes to power running. Fitzgerald’s teams have had their share of success through the years wrangling UW running backs, but All-American Jonathan Taylor is in top form and operating behind one of the program’s best run-blocking lines to date.

The Wildcats have a chance to induce hit-or-miss Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook — if he plays, that is — into some bad decisions if the Joe Gaziano-led pass rush has a good day. Hornibrook reportedly was in concussion protocol during the week, though he wasn’t listed on the team’s official injury report.

Offensively, NU — depleted in the run game — will need a strong outing from quarterback Clayton Thorson. The Badgers’ pass rush isn’t much to worry about this season.

Just a question: Generally speaking, are the Wildcats better off on the road than they are at home? Because it often seems Ryan Field — whose stands will be painted with enormous swaths of red — does them no favors. Bucky is the pick, 27-17.

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In East Lansing, Purdue — coming off a dazzling blowout win at Ohio State, the upset of the year in college football — will shoot for its fifth consecutive victory after a miserable 0-3 start. There’s still a ton of room on the Boilermakers bandwagon, but it’ll disappear in a hurry if they knock off the Spartans.

“I am proud of the turnaround that we’ve had to this point,” coach Jeff Brohm said. “I think we’ve learned a lot from our mistakes. The losses hurt, and they hurt bad, and they hurt us all [but] we found ways to improve and it meant something to us.”

Got to go with the hot hand. Boiler Up, as in (slight) upset.

How good is Iowa? Look back on its only defeat, at home against Wisconsin, and there’s no question it could be unbeaten — and squarely in the playoff hunt — if not for a couple of awful, self-inflicted mistakes. The Nittany Lions are two defensive stops from being unbeaten themselves. Right now, though, the Hawkeyes are playing better football. Fightin’ Ferentzes by a field goal.

Three games of high interest in other parts of the country:

No. 2 Clemson (-17) at Florida State (11 a.m., Ch. 7): It’s strange to refer to this as a physical mismatch, but how else to size up the Tigers’ state-of-the-art defensive line against the Seminoles’ still-not-ready-for-prime-time offensive line? Quietly, though, FSU’s overall play has been on a slow, steady incline for more than a month. Clemson, 38-24.

No. 9 Florida (+6½) vs. No. 7 Georgia (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): Few games all year compare in the pomp-and-circumstance department to Gators-Bulldogs in Jacksonville, but about that Florida-Georgia line — Dogs put their windows down and cruise.

No. 14 Washington State (+3) at No. 24 Stanford (6 p.m., Pac-12 Network): The Cougars have all the mojo in the world, but isn’t that just when they’ve often fallen flat under Mike Leach? Cardinal cover, barely.

My favorite favorite: USC (-5) vs. Arizona State (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7). Three road games for the Sun Devils thus far, three seven-point losses. Let’s make it four.

My favorite underdog: Kansas (+14) vs. TCU (2 p.m., FS1): Yes, Kansas. You thought it was a misprint, didn’t you?

Last week: 6-2 straight-up; 2-6 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 39-16 straight-up; 27-27-1 vs. the spread.

THE LOCALS

ILLINOIS AT MARYLAND

The facts: 2:30 p.m., BTN, 670-AM.

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

The storyline: When you really look at it, the Illini haven’t been half bad. The problem is, they’ve been outscored by an average of about 20 points in the second halves of their four losses. That speaks to their overall talent deficit, their lack of depth, the ground they need to gain in strength and conditioning and, well, that’s enough of a list for now. How will they fare in the first-ever meeting between these schools? The Terrapins haven’t been anything special since their season-opening upset of Texas, but they are stingy against the run — and without its better-than-average running game, Illinois’ goose is cooked.

The line: Terrapins by 18.

Greenberg’s pick: Maryland, 31-16.

NORTHERN ILLINOIS AT BYU

The facts: 2:30 p.m., ESPNU, 560-AM.

The records: NIU 4-3, BYU 4-3.

The storyline: This is a tough assignment for the Huskies, who already are 0-3 in games outside the MAC. BYU has beaten Wisconsin and Arizona on the road, played California within a whisker and gained valuable experience in defeat at Washington. It’ll be difficult for the Huskies to contend with 6-9 pass rusher Corbin Kaufusi, so establishing the run is a must. Defensively, Rod Carey’s squad must game-plan for exciting true freshman quarterback Zach Wilson, who has stolen the job from senior Tanner Mangum over the last couple of weeks.

The line: Cougars by 7.

Greenberg’s pick: BYU, 24-13.

NO. 3 NOTRE DAME VS. NAVY

The facts: 7 p.m., Ch. 2,
1000-AM.

The records: Notre Dame 7-0, Navy 2-5.

The storyline: The Irish have put the most notable recent stretch in this great rivalry’s history — Navy’s three victories in four years, from 2007-10 — in the rearview mirror, for the most part. But the games since then have remained competitive, and the Midshipmen are dangerous again despite their disappointing record. If Garret Lewis could run as well as Malcolm Perry, and if Perry could throw the ball as well as Lewis, the Middies would really have something at quarterback. The game’s location in San Diego, a naval stronghold, could create an advantage for the underdogs.

The line: Irish by 24.

Greenberg’s pick: Notre Dame, 38-21.