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The game before The Game: Previewing Michigan at Wisconsin

No rest for the weary as the Wolverines travel to Wisconsin the week before hosting Ohio State. Yikes.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Now, on to Wisconsin.

This may be the most underrated big game Michigan will play in 2017. Or rather, the least talked-about this offseason.

For the first time in eight years, the Wolverines will head to Camp Randall Stadium to take on the Badgers, and, inconveniently, it just happens to be in late November and the week before facing the Buckeyes at home.

How does that saying go again? Champions are made in November, or something? Need I remind you what happened to the 2016 team when that month rolled around?

It's safe to say this November we will certainly find out what this Michigan team is made of. Wisconsin was the real deal last year, battling Michigan to the end in a one-score game, and then taking the conference's West division. Many sportswriters are already calling for the Badgers to make the Big Ten Championship Game again this year—their fifth appearance in seven seasons.

But will they have the same strength heading into 2017? Let's take a closer look at the matchup for Michigan.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

“Wisconsin had to have lost some serious talent from last year, right?”

We all know Michigan had a monster NFL Draft, setting a program record for total players selected, and in the process nearly depleted its entire starting lineup from last season. So before we talk about who they will face from Wisconsin in 2017, you want to know some of the top talent that the Badgers lost as well, right?

There are some guys you no longer need to worry about. On offense, forget about Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale and Ryan Ramczyk. From the nation’s fourth-ranked defense, the linebacking corps will be missing two big time players in T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel.

The backfield will certainly take a hit with Clement and Ogunbowale both departing, as they were the top two rushers on the team with 1,375 and 506 yards last year, respectively. Add to that Watt, the anchor of the defense and a first round selection, and Ramczyk, an elite offensive lineman who went two picks later to the Saints, and there is certainly a void that cannot be ignored.

Just like Michigan, however, there are players waiting in the wings.

“Who on the Wisconsin offense does Michigan need to keep its eye on?”

Much like Michigan in 2016, Wisconsin had an offense that could have good days and bad days. However, in 2017 both of these teams return some key playmakers.

Starting at quarterback, the Badgers have a little bit of experience coming back in Alex Hornibrook. He’s certainly no Heisman candidate, but he showed glimpses of promise in 2016. The biggest concern for Wisconsin here is that if he goes down, good luck replacing him. That’s to say, there’s very little depth.

If there’s any team that’s showed an ability to overcome average quarterback play, however, it’s Wisconsin, and that should be true again in 2017 for a couple reasons.

First, look at the running backs. Sure, Clement and Ogunbowale are gone, but they weren’t the Montee Balls and Melvin Gordons of a few years ago. Backs Bradrick Shaw and Pitt transfer Chris James should be able to fill those shoes rather easily, and I dare say far exceed the output from last season’s seniors. It also helps, I should note, that Wisconsin is returning seven offensive linemen with starting experience.

Another reason Hornibrook will be just fine is because of his receiving targets. Big-play wideout Jazz Peavy, a fast and elusive athlete who also will take some end-arounds, will lead the crew alongside tight end Troy Fumagalli, a big target with good hands. Look for sophomores Quintez Cephus and A.J. Taylor to get their fair share of playing time as well.

What all this means for the Michigan defense is that there will be very little room for error. It’ll be hard to call this Wolverine unit “young” by game 11, so I won’t. We’ll know by this point if they are good, and my bet is that they will be.

Stop the run and get to Hornibrook and Michigan should be okay. My gameplan, if I were Don Brown, would be to put on the pressure from the get-go and not let up (though something tells me he’s already thought of that).

“Please tell me Wisconsin’s defense lost 10-of-11 starters, too.”

Unfortunately, no.

On the defensive line, everyone returns. And I don’t mean “it feels like they’re all back.” No, I mean they all return. That said, the defense is losing significant quarterback pressure with the departures of Watt and Biegel, who accounted for 15.5-of-34 sacks last season.

The linebacking corps will certainly miss those two guys, but they are far from lacking experience. Ryan Connelly, Jack Cichy and T.J. Edwards, who led the team in tackles a year ago, all garnered significant playing time last season and are ready to step into the leadership role. Best guess here is that they miss Watt on the outside, but still have one of the top position groups in the country.

Moving on to the secondary, Sojourn Shelton and Leo Musso, who combined for nine interceptions last season, will be missed. But, again, plenty of talent returns. Four seniors will fill the void, with Derrick Tindal and Lubern Figaro at corner and Natrell Jamerson and D’Cota Dixon at safety.

This defense on the whole is returning so much talent that by the time conference play begins, we may all be wondering aloud how in the heck they could possibly be better than in 2016.

Luckily for the Wolverines, there will be plenty of playmakers left on the offensive side of the ball. This will likely be the best defense Michigan faces up to this point in the season, and it will be up to Speight and Co. to exploit any and every opportunity that arises (because they will be few and far between).

"How will this one play out?”

I’ll be honest. The more research I did about Wisconsin’s 2017 squad, the more uneasy I began to feel about this matchup.

This game could be interesting. And by interesting, I mean terrifying for Michigan fans. Will Wisconsin be the team is was in 2016? Probably not. They could be even better.

Last year, the Badgers had to travel to Ann Arbor and they battled it out until the end. This year, Michigan will head to Camp Randall and must remain focused on the team before them on the field. Meaning: any thoughts drifting toward Ohio State the next week and Wisconsin could deliver a serious blow to whatever hopes are on the line for Michigan—a division title, a conference championship, maybe a shot at a playoff berth?

Heading into 2017, the only game the Badgers are not favored by S&P+ is their matchup with the Wolverines, with Michigan holding a 53% edge.

I see this one playing out much like last year. There will be plenty of defense, but it will be the big plays that will determine the victor. In 2016, Speight connected with Darboh down the sideline for a go—ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, and then Jourdan Lewis made his legendary one-handed pick to seal the game.

Who, I wonder, will make the big play in 2017?