Michigan Wisconsin Football

Michigan vs. Wisconsin is Big Ten football at its best. Michigan is a 3½-point underdog heading to Camp Randall Stadium, where the Wolverines haven’t won since 2001.

LINCOLN — In a sense it’s not fair, what Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh experiences every year.

He righted the ship on a program Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke — for different reasons, and not maliciously — piloted toward disaster. He’s won 74 percent of his games at Michigan, finished three of four seasons ranked in the top 15 and kept his program free of off-the-field scandal. Rivals Ohio State and Michigan State can’t say that in the past five years, can they?

Yet the Wolverines go into every season tied to an expectation of winning the Big Ten title. When you’ve won or shared 42 of those — tops in the league — it’s just sort of the bar. It’s been 15 years, too, since Michigan claimed one. So Harbaugh is asked constantly about it.

That didn’t change Wednesday, three days before the league opener against Wisconsin (11 a.m., Fox).

“Talk about how much chasing a Big Ten title means to this program at this point,” a reporter requested.

Harbaugh responded: “Yeah, well, uh, the challenge of this game is big. Always played Wisconsin now three times now. Going for the fourth. They’re just good every year. Seems to be every time you face them.”

Setting aside Harbaugh’s inartful dodge of a poorly worded question, Wisconsin is, indeed, one of those crossover swing games that could decide the Big Ten East Division. Ohio State visits Nebraska next week. Do you think the Buckeyes will be an underdog? I don’t.

But Michigan is a 3½-point underdog heading to Camp Randall Stadium, where the Wolverines haven’t won since 2001.

Harbaugh said of the point spread is “irrelevant.” He’s right. It’s basically a pick ’em without Wisconsin’s home-field advantage.

Still — before the year, I wouldn’t have put Michigan and Wisconsin on the same level. I had Michigan winning in Madison by 10 before the season. But the Wolverines’ shift to a spread offense has been riddled with turnovers while Wisconsin’s defense has to yet to give up a point this season.

Bad opponents? Sure. South Florida and Central Michigan don’t jump off the page. But shutouts are shutouts.

The last time the Badgers had two in a season was 2015, when the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense carried an awful, Joel Stave-led offense to 10 wins.

Just when you think the Badgers are about to take a step back, they’re right back in the center of the ring, fighting off all comers.

And just when you think Michigan has a clear runway to a league title — plus the right quarterback in Shea Patterson — the offense and the signal-caller take a step back in terms of turnovers and completion rate. Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan suddenly looks like the second coming of Scott Tolzien instead of Stave in disguise.

Given that, you look at the ground games of the two teams. You look at the backs. How long has it been since Michigan had a back the caliber of Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor? Mike Hart in the mid-2000s? Chris Perry before that?

Wisconsin has become the new Michigan. Harbaugh, charged with bringing back old Michigan, is an underdog to a team bigger and stronger than his.

The Wolverines are faster at the skill spots. And I’ll take defensive coordinator Don Brown against a stationary quarterback. Coan is that.

Yet Wisconsin is favored for a reason. Michigan has been mistake-prone early in the season.

I’m going with the upset here. Sort of.

Wisconsin 28, Michigan 24

Other Big Ten predictions:

Nebraska (2-1) at Illinois (2-1)

7 p.m., BTN

The Huskers’ offense is back enough on track to expect more points in Champaign, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the defense gets in on the fun with another score of its own.

Line: Nebraska by 13

My pick: Nebraska 38, Illinois 20

Michigan State (2-1) at Northwestern (1-1)

11 a.m., ABC

The Wildcats have swiped three straight from the Spartans and all three have included at least 48 points. The over/under here is 38. Pick the over.

Line: MSU by 8½

My pick: Michigan State 28, Northwestern 19

Boston College (2-1) at Rutgers (1-1)

11 a.m., BTN

BC rolls into Piscataway having suffered a stunning upset home loss to Kansas. I don’t expect two laid eggs in a row.

Line: Boston College by 8½

My pick: Boston College 28, Rutgers 14

Miami (Ohio) (1-2) at No. 6 Ohio State (3-0)

2:30 p.m., BTN

Will the Buckeyes take their foot off the gas one week before the big trip to Lincoln? No. No, I don’t think so.

Line: Ohio State by 38½

My pick: Ohio State 42, Miami (Ohio) 10

Connecticut (1-1) at Indiana (2-1)

11 a.m., BTN

It’s not basketball.

Line: Indiana by 27½

My pick: Indiana 23, Connecticut 13

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