A year ago, Michigan surprised the Big Ten and the nation, quietly moving through the conference and up the rankings with an overpowering defense and opportunistic offense.
This year, the Wisconsin Badgers have stolen a page from the Wolverines' book.
Like the '97 Wolverines, the Badgers weren't favored to win the Big Ten title, much less have a chance at a national title. But with two games left in the season, the Badgers control their own fate in the conference and -- with a lot of outside help -- eventually could find themselves in contention for the national title.
"Wisconsin is the best team we've played this year," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. "When I look at Wisconsin, what I see is the best kicking game. When you match that with the fact that they lead the nation in turnover margin at plus-21, you have a team that does not beat itself."
That was the trademark of last year's Michigan team, which led the nation in total defense and was among the leaders in turnovers with plus-9. The Badgers lead the nation in rush defense (62.7 yards a game), are fourth in total defense (248.8 yards) and lead the nation in turnover ratio at plus 2.33 a game.
The Badgers are 9-0 overall and 6-0 in the conference, just as Michigan was a year ago entering the Wisconsin gae. The difference: A year ago, the Wolverines were coming off a 34-8 victory over Penn State -- then ranked No. 2 -- and Michigan had just taken over the No. 1 ranking.
| Barry Alvarez's Badgers will be put to the test in the final two games of the regular season. (AP) |
They'll remedy that over the next two weeks with games at No. 15 Michigan (7-2, 6-0) and against No. 19 Penn State (6-2, 3-2). A victory Saturday would ensure the Badgers of at least a Rose Bowl berth. If they lose, they must hope Ohio State beats Michigan and they beat the Nittany Lions.
"I relish our situation because we're playing for an awful lot nine games into the season," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "You like to be in this situation at this time of year. We're playing the defending national champions, we're ranked in the Top 10 and there's an awful lot at stake.
"I think anybody that's in this business looks forward to and hopes they have the opportunity to play in games like this."
That's the message Alvarez has been trying to get across to his players: Don't be intimidated by Michigan and its football history.
Michigan has more victories than any other school (783), more Rose Bowl appearances than any other Big Ten team (17) and lays claim to 11 national titles dating back to 1898. Wisconsin has 515 victories, four Rose Bowl appearances and was ranked No. 1 for one week in 1952.
That might explain why the Wolverines are favored Saturday. But Alvarez wants the Badgers to ignore all that.
"We try to educate them about not being intimidated, not worrying about that funny helmet across the line from them," he said. "Just go out and play."
Even Alvarez said he couldn't believe how Michigan dominated the Nittany Lions in a 27-0 victory.
"They looked like they were at a different speed," Alvarez said. "We all know what kind of athletes and the type of players there are at Penn State, but to see them dominated by a Michigan team was very impressive and very surprising."
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