Wisconsin relied on a strong second-half comeback to advance to the Big Ten Conference title game against an unlikely opponent -- Penn State. The Badgers, though, dropped one spot to No. 6 in the Associated Press poll after their 31-17 win over Minnesota.
The Badgers did move up one spot to No. 5 in the USA Today Coaches poll, behind No. 1 Alabama, Ohio State State, Clemson and Washington. The latest College Football Playoff rankings will be released Tuesday night. The Badgers, who were No. 6 last week, hope to move up a spot or two this week, but the odds are stacked against them.
Even still, Wisconsin is in a good position. Beat Penn State and have some luck go there way -- Clemson or Washington loses in a conference title game -- and the Badgers could be among the four playoff teams.
Pretty heady stuff for a program with question marks at quarterback, offensive line and lack of dependable wide receivers. All those questions, amid a rugged schedule that included LSU, Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa, were answered due to a solid defense.
The Badgers (9-2, 6-2) won the Big Ten's West Division outright when Iowa beat Nebraska on Friday, putting Wisconsin in the conference title game for the fourth time in the game's six-year history.
Penn State is a surprise team, though. The Nittany Lions (10-2, 8-1) set in motion the chance to win the East Division by beating Ohio State, then sealed the title by defeating Michigan State in the final game of the regular season.
One of the biggest concerns for the Badgers heading into Saturday's title game is the health of freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who left the Minnesota game in the second quarter with an apparent right ankle injury.
"I know he got on the bike (Sunday) and did some things, said he felt good after that, but we'll probably just take it day-by-day here," Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said of Hornibrook.
Penn State has its own injury issues, with star running back Saquon Barkley questionable for the title game. Barkley has rushed for 1,219 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, and has 21 receptions for 327 yards and two touchdowns.
There's plenty of talk that the winner of the game should qualify for the four-team playoffs. Clearly, though, not many people anticipated a showdown between the Badgers and Nittany Lions in the championship game in August. The Badgers defeated three top-10 teams for the first time in program history to land in the title game, so a win over No. 7 Penn State gives them a good argument to be among the top four.
"You look at the rankings all year long, the Big Ten has had a strong presence," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "I've been fortunate to have been a coach in the SEC and the Big Ten, and I think you can make the argument that the Big Ten is as strong or stronger than any conference in the country."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Bart Houston played a solid second half in relief of Alex Hornibrook in the Minnesota win. How Houston handles the big stage of playing in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis is a key factor. A senior with plenty of big-game experience in the late stages of his career, the once-highly recruited player can make an indelible mark with a strong showing against Penn State.
--RB Corey Clement has an opportunity to erase any negative vibes associated with injuries, off-the-field issues and battling high expectations since becoming the main back following Melvin Gordon. A strong showing against Penn State will help his NFL stock, and give the Badgers a good shot at one of the four college playoff spots.
--LB T.J. Watt has racked up 13 tackles for a loss with 9.5 sacks. The 6-foot-5, 245-poung younger brother of J.J. Watt is a player to keep an eye on. Injuries have slowed him since a strong start, though.
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