First & 20: Don’t sleep on Wisconsin

Anthony Gimino

October 01, 2017 at 2:44 pm.

Sep 30, 2017; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor (23) scores a touchdown on a seven yard run during the first quarter of their game against Northwestern at Camp Randall Stadium.   Photo Credit: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY Sports

Sep 30, 2017; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor (23) scores a touchdown on a seven yard run during the first quarter of their game against Northwestern at Camp Randall Stadium. Photo Credit: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY Sports

That’s it for September.

Alabama is Alabama. Clemson is Clemsonsing, in all the good ways. Georgia’s defense is ferocious. Oklahoma has pocketed a win at Ohio State. Saquon Barkley is returning kicks for scores and throwing touchdowns for Penn State, which hardly seems fair.

If that’s the Big Five for the first month of the college football season, there is still a long line out the door hoping to get into the playoff club.

TCU and Washington State — each with a signature victory — have taken turns as the flavor of the day and jumped closer to the front of the line. Some of the sexy teams with one loss — including USC, Oklahoma State, even Notre Dame — can’t be eliminated from playoff discussion.

But don’t overlook an ol’ reliable. The quiet team in the corner.


Wisconsin is still just so Wisconsin. Great offensive line. Stop-me-if-you-can running game. Efficient passing attack. Stout defensive front seven. Perhaps you’ve seen this before.

The Badgers arrived ahead of schedule with a young team last season, winning 11 games and nearly popping Penn State’s balloon in the Big Ten title game. Their formula is working again.

Wisconsin is in the national top 25 in rushing, the top 10 in third-down conversions, and the top five in passing efficiency, rushing defense, total defense and sacks.

While the hurdles haven’t been the highest, that’s also kind of the point looking ahead. The Badgers (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) don’t play Ohio State in the regular season. They don’t play Penn State. They get Michigan at Camp Randall Stadium.

If they win at Nebraska this Saturday, the path is clear to at least the West Division championship and the Big Ten title game.

In a 33-24 victory over Northwestern on Saturday in which the Wildcats scored two late touchdowns to make the final score more respectable, Wisconsin had eight sacks and held standout running back Justin Jackson to 25 yards on nine carries. Those two late TDs are the only second-half points allowed by Wisconsin this season.

“I thought it was a great example, too, of how football is a team game, and it takes everyone,” Badgers coach Paul Chryst said after the game. “I thought this was one of those games of field position, and I thought that we had better field position and took advantage of it in the second half and able to get some points.”

Field position. That’s so Wisconsin.

True freshman running back Jonathan Taylor leads a typical collection of deep backs, and the receiving corps can make big plays when needed. Sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook has been just fine at not messing things up, ranking fifth nationally in passing efficiency.

Many teams will be left behind as the playoff race accelerates, but the steady Badgers have the skill — and the schedule — to be within reach of the finish line in early December.

5 things we learned in Week 5.

1. “Angry” Alabama is awesome. The Crimson Tide has wrecked Vanderbilt and Ole Miss by a combined score of 125-3 in the past two weeks, and coach Nick Saban was still so grouchy he sniped at a reporter in his postgame press conference Saturday night for not putting the microphone close enough to his mouth.

2. The window of opportunity is closing for Butch Jones. Big buyout or not — reportedly at least $11 million to sweep away the entire staff — Jones is in trouble at Tennessee. He missed his chance to make hay in the past two seasons, when neither Florida nor Georgia was a juggernaut, and losses to both of those schools this year mean the Vols won’t win the SEC East.

Again. Saturday’s 41-0 home loss to Georgia might have been Jones’ point of no return.

3. The Texas defense is a salty bunch. The Longhorns have been superb defensively in three games since a wild 51-41 loss to Maryland, holding Iowa State to seven points on Thursday night. If defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s big, aggressive group is legit, Texas is going to make some noise in a key upcoming stretch that goes like this: Kansas State, vs. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State.

4. Scott Frost is on every AD’s speed dial. Central Florida was 0-12 two seasons ago to close out the George O’Leary era before Frost arrived as a rookie head coach. The former Nebraska quarterback went 6-7 in his debut season and is off to a 4-0 start this season with the Knights, with lopsided victories at Maryland and over Memphis. At 42, with impeccable pedigree, Frost is the newest hot coach.

5. Call him Coach Uh-Oh. LSU has been boat-raced by a Mississippi State team that subsequently got exposed by Georgia and Auburn, and then theoretically hit bottom Saturday with a home loss to Troy. LSU didn’t have to put a $12 million buyout into coach Ed Orgeron’s contract — the Tigers were essentially bidding against themselves after firing Les Miles last season — but that is what the school will owe if it wants to quickly pull the plug this season.

5 top Heisman candidates

1. Penn State RB Saquon Barkley. Not recommending this, but if you stopped reading right now and watched Barkley highlights instead, we’d understand. Hurry back.

2. Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield. He holds his Heisman position after the Sooners were off last week. Oklahoma gets Iowa State at home this week, with the next major test being the Red River Showdown against Texas on Oct. 14.

3. Stanford RB Bryce Love. The 196-pound junior somehow runs like a sprint star while also delivering the yard-churning leg drive of a 240-pound fullback. “I’m definitely not the biggest guy out there, for sure,” he said. “But I take pride in being able to go out there and make those type of plays and being able to pick up the yards.”

4. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson. He’s still the freakiest of the college football freaks, although he continues to pay a big price in the Heisman race for his team’s loss to Clemson, which hardly seems like a high crime.

5. Washington State QB Luke Falk. To sum up: 343.6 passing yards per game, 16 touchdowns, two interceptions, 74.5 percent completions, 5-0 record.

5 trends to know

1. Stanford’s Bryce Love has busted out a 50-yard run in each of the past seven games, dating to last season. He has 18 runs of 20-plus yards this season, which is at least TWICE as much as every other player in the country, except for San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny (11).

2. Alabama’s 66-3 victory over Ole Miss not only marked the Tide’s high-water scoring output in the Nick Saban era, it extended its winning streak over unranked teams to 69. It’s entirely possible that Alabama will play only one more ranked team in the regular season — at Auburn on Nov. 25.

3. Arizona State hasn’t been good on defense, but this is really crazy: The Sun Devils have given up points in the final minute of the first half in all five games this season.

4. Tennessee has lost 27 consecutive games to teams ranked in the Top 10, which trails only Wake Forest (56) and Indiana (35) as the longest such skid in the country.

5. South Florida has scored at least 30 points in 22 consecutive games. The record is 23, set by Chip Kelly’s Oregon teams in 2011 and 2012. The Bulls will try to tie the mark Oct. 14 against visiting Cincinnati.

5 top games in Week 6

1. Louisville at North Carolina State (Thursday, 8 p.m.) — Lamar Jackson jumps back into the spotlight against the Wolfpack, which has ripped off four consecutive wins, including over Florida State.

2. Miami at Florida State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m.) — This hurricane-delayed game sees Miami as the top dog — Malik Rosier stepping in nicely at quarterback so far this season — looking to end a seven-game losing streak to the Seminoles. The past three games have been decided by a total of 10 points.

3. West Virginia at TCU (Saturday, 3:30 p.m.) — ESPN’s College GameDay is heading to Fort Worth to see if the 4-0 Horned Frogs can keep the pedal to the metal against the 3-1 Mountaineers in a key Big 12 matchup.

4. Michigan State at Michigan (Saturday, 7:30 p.m.) — An early October rivalry to sink your teeth into. The Wolverines broke a three-game losing streak to “little brother” last season, and there’s a reasonable chance this turns into a brawl at the line of scrimmage.

5. Wisconsin at Nebraska (Saturday, 8 p.m.) — After a rough game-and-half, the Cornhuskers’ defense has settled down, so there’s at least a little hope in Lincoln that coach Mike Riley’s guys can make a desperately needed statement in the Big Ten West.