Nebraska-Wisconsin Will Be a Night Game
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Hot Reads: Is Wisconsin’s Lead over the Rest of the West Shrinking?

August 21, 2018

It's not often that the Associated Press poll surprises. That's partly by design. In a recent podcast interview AP college football writer and poll shepherd Ralph Russo mentioned that the AP prefers for its poll to come out last. It's a "final word" sort of thing for the preseason and as our oldest continuous poll it should probably have that privilege.

But in most years that means that everyone has already digested countless rankings. In most years, dropping in on the AP poll is mostly a matter of taking a quick look and saying, "Yeah, that checks out."

This year, however, was somewhat unique with Ohio State's late-breaking administrative-leaving of Urban Meyer. A report from the Columbus Dispatch indicates that the "likely recommendation" for Meyer will be a suspension rather than termination. It might even be a suspension that doesn't require Meyer to miss any additional time, receiving credit for "time served." He has been on paid leave since Aug. 1 as Ohio State conducted an investigation into his handling of domestic abuse allegations against former wide receivers coach Zach Smith.

The Coaches poll came out Aug. 2. Voters in that poll were considering a full-strength Ohio State, and if the above report is correct the Buckeyes might still be close to that by opening kickoff. But the AP voters didn't know that when casting their ballots for Monday's release. So instead of Ohio State being the top-ranked team in the Big Ten you had Wisconsin. The Badgers even received one first-place vote. 

It's Wisconsin's second top-five ranking in the preseason AP poll in school history. Interestingly enough, the Badgers 2018 placement –– No. 4, one first-place vote –– is exactly the same as it was in 2000. That team started 0-3 in Big Ten play, finishing 9-4 overall and ranked 23rd in the final AP poll. But for this year, having Wisconsin in the top five isn't a hard argument to make. The Badgers were great a year ago, return most of the key pieces on offense and have a track record of turning out nasty defenses no matter who is back.

Consensus: Wisconsin is easily the best team in the West in 2018, and, at least according to the AP poll, maybe the best team in the Big Ten.

BTN analyst Gerry DiNardo is a little less convinced, however. He was in Lincoln on Saturday, which you've probably already read plenty about, but what about his views on the West Division overall?

Hail Varsity Radio host Chris Schmidt spoke with DiNardo about that on Monday. The BTN crew had just visited Iowa and was making its way to Illinois. So far the BTN tour has made stops at more than half of the West Division, including Wisconsin and Minnesota in addition to Nebraska and Iowa.

DiNardo came away from those visits with an interesting perspective on the division race.

"Let's call it the wild, wild West," he told Hail Varsity Radio. "I think Wisconsin is the best team personnel-wise, but I think Nebraska, Iowa and maybe Northwestern –– we haven't been there yet –– are close enough that it's just going to be a crazy race in the West."

That wasn't the case a year ago. The Badgers were easy favorites in the West again and, DiNardo said, looked like they had separated themselves from the rest of the division.

"I don't feel that way this year," DiNardo said. "I feel like it's tighter than it was . . . I think the West is headed for [being] one of the most balanced divisions in college football."

Balance was a question that came up often at Big Ten Media Days, not within divisions but between divisions. The East is not balanced internally. You have four heavyweights beating up on two middleweights and Rutgers. Its four heavyweights also outnumber the heavyweights –– or, at this point, just heavyweight? –– in the West, hence all the questions about balance.

How does the West close that gap? Internal balance could help, but only if that balance is achieved by a few of the division teams rising to Wisconsin's level rather than the Badgers coming back to the pack. It's not just a matter of if it happens –– though DiNardo's inkling that it could this year remains somewhat bold –– but how.

Thankfully we can start answering some of the ifs and hows next week.

PSA #1

This is so much of a Public Service Announcement as a Personal one, but if you're looking for something fun to do on the last Saturday without Nebraska football, I'll be presenting on "Dream Like A Champion" at the Nebraska Book Festival this Saturday.

Here's the complete schedule of events, but I wanted to mention it because a number of great organizations and people have worked hard to put this event together and I'm excited to be a part of it. Let's hang out and talk books.

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