College football forecast: Harbaugh needs huge Big Ten win

By Matt Youmans  (VSiN senior editor) 

After losses to Michigan State and Penn State, Jim Harbaugh still needs to coach Michigan to a big win in the Big Ten this season. The Wolverines are 7-point underdogs at Wisconsin on Saturday.
© USA Today Sports Images

So far, the Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan is mostly hype. Too much talk and not enough action in the biggest games. Harbaugh has too often come up short against the Big Ten’s top teams.

It’s not enough to embarrass Rutgers and step outside of the conference to bully Florida and beat up an overmatched Jim McElwain when he was down and headed out.

The next two Saturdays, against Wisconsin and Ohio State, will define Harbaugh’s third season. The Wolverines’ first mission is to wreck the Badgers’ realistic College Football Playoff plans. The game is in Madison, of course, because the Badgers (10-0) have faced zero quality opponents on the road this season.

When the Big Ten split into two seven-team divisions, Wisconsin won the lottery. The imbalance from East to West is absurd. Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State make for four heavyweights in the East. Meanwhile, the Badgers are barely challenged in the West with Iowa, Northwestern, Nebraska, Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois forming a group of mediocre contenders. It’s not quite a bye to the conference championship game, but it’s close.

While critics whine about a weak schedule, Wisconsin will have chances to prove its worth. Everything is breaking right for the Badgers, with the exception of injuries.

In a dominant showing against Iowa last week, Wisconsin was without safety D’Cota Dixon, the team’s leading tackler, and top receiver Quintez Cephus, who is lost for the rest of the year. Now, starting center Tyler Biadasz is listed as questionable with a leg injury, and inside linebacker Chris Orr is out with a leg injury. The injury report is a long list, but football is a game of attrition and excuses are for losers.

The Badgers’ biggest concern might be quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who sometimes is so bad it’s a miracle the team can keep winning despite him. Hornibrook threw two interceptions that Hawkeyes cornerback Joshua Jackson returned for touchdowns. A week after a 55-24 blowout of the Buckeyes, Iowa’s anemic offense totaled 66 yards in the 38-14 loss in Madison. In a crazy oddity, the Hawkeyes scored on two pick-sixes while their offense ran a total of two plays in Wisconsin territory.

The battle between the Badgers and Wolverines will be a black-and-blue defensive slugfest. Wisconsin ranks third in the nation in scoring defense (13.4 points per game), and Michigan ranks ninth (16.4).

The Badgers are banking on star freshman Jonathan Taylor, who rushed for 157 yards against Iowa and has 1,525 yards (7.0 per carry) and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Harbaugh has turned to inexperienced quarterback Brandon Peters after losing Wilton Speight to a back injury. Peters passed for four touchdowns with no interceptions in the past three games, but he’s operating in a conservative offense.

In a game with a low total of 41, sharp money initially showed on Michigan, dropping the line from 9 early in the week to 7 today. Harbaugh might come up short again, but he should make the Badgers sweat, so this is a play on the Wolverines as 7-point ‘dogs.

Saturday’s plays: DUKE (plus-7) over Georgia Tech; Fresno State (-2) over WYOMING; IOWA (-7) over Purdue; Michigan (plus-7) over WISCONSIN; SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA (-15) over Ucla.

Last week: 4-5-1 against the spread

Season: 47-43-2

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