Can the Green Bay Packers Upset the Pittsburgh Steelers on SNF?

Packers vs. Steelers

Going into Sunday night’s game between the 5-5 Green Bay Packers and the 8-2 Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, the Westgate Superbook in Las Vegas has the visiting team from Titletown as 14 point underdogs.

And based on NFL statistical information, the wise guys in Vegas may have the line just about right. It would be a huge upset if the Packers could topple the Steelers on the road.

First off, the Packers are reeling and the Steelers are surging.

The play of quarterback Brett Hundley was just dreadful against the Baltimore Ravens at Lambeau Field last Sunday, as the home crowd showered Hundley and the offense with boos on more than one occasion.

Hundley threw for 239 yards, but also tossed three picks without a touchdown pass, as the Packers were shut out by the Ravens 23-0. No. 7’s passer rating for the game was an abysmal 43.8.

And this performance came a week after Hundley had the best game of his NFL career against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, as he completed 72 percent of his passes and threw one TD pass without an interception and had a passer rating of 110.8.

So which Hundley will we see on Sunday night? That is a very interesting question. You know that head coach Mike McCarthy wants to see Hundley perform well in his hometown. But will he?

For the season, Hundley has definitely had his ups and downs since replacing an injured Aaron Rodgers in Week 6, after No. 12 suffered a broken collarbone. Overall this season, Hundley has thrown two TD passes versus seven interceptions for 940 yards. That adds up to a mediocre passer rating of 63.6.

It’s no wonder that the Packers are 1-3 in the games that Hundley has  started at quarterback.

Contrast that to Rodgers, who led the Packers to a 4-1 record before he was injured against the Minnesota Vikings in the sixth game of the season. No. 12 had thrown 13 TD passes versus just three picks for 1,385 yards. The passer rating for Rodgers was a very robust 103.2.

Now I realize that it’s very difficult to replace a legend like Rodgers and even come close to his production, but there has to be a middle ground somewhere between the way Hundley has played and the way Rodgers plays. That is where the Packers need Hundley to be.

Have a passer rating of 83.5 or so. Throw at least as many TD passes as you throw interceptions. That will at least give the team a fighting chance to win, depending on how the defense and special teams performs.

So what are the odds that Hundley will do well on Sunday night against the Steelers on the road? Not good. The Steelers are ranked third in the NFL in passing defense. The opposing QBs have a passer rating of 74.2 when they face the Steelers. Plus, they have only allowed nine TD passes versus 12 interceptions.

Mike McCarthy and Brett Hundley

Add to that, the Steelers are second in the NFL with 34 sacks. One of the pass rushers for the Steelers is rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who the Packers could have drafted at pick No. 29 in the 2017 NFL draft. But the Packers decided to trade back instead. The Steelers then took Watt with pick No. 30.

Hundley has not shown much pocket presence as a passer, plus does not see open receivers at times and holds the ball too long. Those three variables have led to Hundley being sacked 17 times already this season in four-plus games.

As a whole, the defense of the Steelers is very good, as they are ranked fourth in the NFL in total defense. Besides defensing the pass well, Pittsburgh also plays the run tough, as they are ranked eighth (97.6 yards per game) in rushing defense. This is a key factor, as the Packers need to have some balance on offense and Jamaal Williams and company have to be productive against the Steel Curtain.

Getting back to McCarthy, going back to his hometown is going to be quite a sentimental experience for the head coach of the Packers. McCarthy is still having trouble dealing with the passing of his younger brother Joe, who died of a heart attack playing racquetball on January 21, 2015 at the age of 47.  Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com wrote a very nice story about that emotional homecoming.

Can McCarthy get his team to play an exceptional game on Sunday night versus the Steelers as big underdogs, especially knowing that he wants to honor his brother Joe? Well, he’s been able to that in the past on a number of occasions, as Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote on Saturday.

Still, it’s going to be a very difficult test for the Packers to stay with the Steelers on Sunday night based on statistics.

The Steelers are ranked 10th in the NFL in total offense, as they average 357.5 yards per game. The Packers are ranked 18th in total defense and give up an average of 340.1 yards per game.

Add to that, the Packers will be dealing with the the Killer B’s…quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown.

Roethlisberger has had better seasons in the past, but he still can wing it with the best of them. For the season, Big Ben has thrown 16 TD passes versus 10 interceptions for 2,597 yards. That adds up to a passer rating of 87.8.

Roethlisberger is always looking for a big play, as evidenced by his 33 completions of 20-plus yards or more and his 10 completions of 40-plus yards or more.

Big Ben has only been sacked 14 times and that doesn’t bode well for the Packers, who are 21st in the NFL with 21 sacks.

In addition to that, the Packers are ranked 18th in the NFL in passing defense and allowed opposing QBs to have a cumulative passer rating of 95.5. Opposing QBs have thrown 13 TD passes versus seven picks against Green Bay.

Roethlisberger loves to look for Brown in the passing game, which is evidenced by the 70 catches for 1,026 and yards and six scores by No. 84. The receptions and yards by Brown lead the NFL.

Besides trying to stop the passing game of the Steelers, the Packers also have to contain Bell in the running game. That will be a tough task. Bell leads the NFL with 886 yards rushing and also has five touchdowns.

Bell is also exceptional catching the football, as he has 49 receptions for 308 yards.

The Packers are better defending the run, as opposed to the pass, as they are 11th (105.7 yards per game) in the NFL in that category. But the defense will be missing a key cog, as defensive lineman Kenny Clark will be out, while outside linebacker Clay Matthews will also most likely be out.

The bottom line is the Packers will have a monumental task ahead of them in trying to win this game.

That being said, I believe the Packers will give a very spirited effort on Sunday night and will play the Steelers tough for the most part. If Hundley continues to play poorly, I don’t think McCarthy will hesitate to put in backup Joe Callahan.

McCarthy wants his team to play with pride and passion on national television in his hometown. I see that happening. Will that mean a victory? Probably not, but if I was betting this game, I would bet the under.

Wisconsin Can Go Where No Badger Has Gone Before vs. Minnesota on Saturday

Wisconsin vs. Minnesota

The Wisconsin Badgers (11-0, 8-0) have a number of goals that they want to achieve they play the Minnesota Golden Gophers (5-6, 2-6) at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

For one, the Badgers obviously want to stay undefeated, which will keep them in play in terms of being one of four teams in the College Football Playoff. The Badgers also want to win the Paul Bunyan Axe game for the 14th consecutive time in their rivalry with the Gophers.

The Axe game has been going on since 1948, and Wisconsin holds a 42-24-3 margin over Minnesota over that time. Speaking of the rivalry between the Badgers and Gophers, it’s the longest, uninterrupted rivalry in FBS Division 1 college football.

The overall series between the two teams is now tied at 59-59-8.

All that being said, there is one thing that Badgers can accomplish on Saturday with a victory over the Gophers that has never been done before in Wisconsin football history.

If you are thinking that the answer might be an undefeated season, you would be incorrect. The Badgers have had three undefeated seasons, but all were over 100 years ago. The Badgers were 9-0 in 1901, 5-0 in 1906 and 7-0 in 1912.

Instead, the one thing that the Badgers have never done is lead the series against the Gophers. The two teams first started playing in 1890 and have played 126 times, but not once have the Badgers led the series against their biggest rival.

Wisconsin has an excellent chance of doing that for the first time on Saturday. Certainly the overall statistics of the two teams say they will win the game.

The Badgers are ranked 44th in total offense in FBS, which includes being ranked 21st in rushing offense and 98th in passing offense.

But the big calling-card of the Badgers is their defense, which is currently ranked second in total defense. That includes being ranked first in rushing defense and seventh in passing defense.

The Gophers on the other hand, are ranked 119th in total offense, which includes being ranked 41st in rushing offense and 122nd in passing offense.

Minnesota is much better on the other side of the ball, as they are ranked 28th in total defense. That includes being ranked 61st in rushing defense and 14th in passing defense.

So, as you can see, the strength of Wisconsin on offense is running the ball, while the weakness for the Minnesota defense is stopping the run.

That is one reason the Badgers have a big edge in this game.

When is comes to toting the rock, the Badgers are led by freshman Jonathan Taylor, who leads the Big 10 in rushing and is third in the country in that category, as he has run for 1,657 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The Badgers as a team average 239.3 yards per game on the ground, while the Gophers give up an average of 161.7 yards per game trying to contain the running game.

The Badgers aren’t as proficient passing the ball, but sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook may have had his two best back-to-back series of the season against Michigan last week at Camp Randall Stadium, as the Badgers beat the Wolverines 24-10 behind three clutch throws by No. 12 in those two drives.

For the season, Hornibrook is ranked 17th in the country in passing efficiency, as he has thrown 18 touchdown passes versus 13 interceptions for 2,006 yards. That adds up to a passing efficiency rating of 152.4.

Hornibrook is still too prone to throwing an ill-advised pick, but he always seems to bounce back strong like he did last week against the Wolverines after throwing an interception. It was after that pick that No. 12 made three of the best passes he has made all season on back-to-back drives that both led to touchdowns. And all three of those pass completions came on third down.

In the passing game, Hornibrook loves looking for senior tight end Troy Fumagalli, who has 36 receptions for 460 yards and three touchdowns.

But when sophomore wide receiver Quintez Cephus (30 catches for 501 yards and six touchdowns) was lost for the season with a leg injury, many people wondered if the other young receivers on the Badgers would step up.

And step up they have. Sophomore A.J. Taylor now has 18 catches for 315 yards and four scores, including one against Michigan last week.

Freshman Danny Davis III has 13 receptions for 271 yards and one touchdown, while fellow freshman Kendric Pryor has seven for 92 yards and one score.

Pryor has also come up big on the ground, as he has rushed for 63 yards this season and has scored a touchdown on a reverse play in back-to back weeks against Iowa and Michigan.

Between the steady and consistent running game and the effective passing game at times, Wisconsin is second in the country in time of possession, as they hold the ball an average of 35 minutes per game.

Vince Biegel with the axe II

Former Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel leads a contingent of Badgers swinging the Paul Bunyan Axe after the 31-21 victory at TCF Bank Stadium in 2015.

But as I mentioned earlier, it’s the defense of the Badgers that is the dominating force behind the great success the team has had in 2017.

Besides being ranked second nationally in total defense and first in rushing defense, the Badgers are also at or near the top in a number of other defensive categories.

Wisconsin is also ranked second in the country in scoring defense (13.1), plus is ranked sixth in team sacks (37) and is tied for seventh in red zone defense.

The 3-4 defense of Wisconsin is a tough one to solve, as defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard uses multiple looks to confuse the opposing quarterbacks.

It’s hard to believe that Leonhard is just in his second year as a coach and just his first as a defensive coordinator.

Speaking of coaches, Wisconsin has to be absolutely thrilled with the job head coach Paul Chryst has done since he took over in 2015. Since then, the Badgers have gone 32-6, which includes going 10-3 in 2015 and winning the Holiday Bowl and 11-3 in 2016 and winning the Cotton Bowl.

The Badgers opponent in the Cotton Bowl was Western Michigan, who came into the game with a 13-0 record and was coached by current Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck. The Badgers won the game 24-16.

Chryst keeps the Badgers on an even keel. The team is well balanced in all phases. That also includes special teams.

Junior Kicker Rafael Gaglianone has made 11-of-13 field goals (.846 percentage) and has been very steady this season.

Sophomore punter Anthony Lotti is averaging 39.8 yards per punt. Plus, the return game is also becoming a force, as junior Nick Nelson returned a punt 50 yards for a touchdown last week against Michigan and is averaging 8.8 yards per return.

Bottom line, the game on Saturday against the Gophers is a huge one for the Badgers in a number of phases. The team can stay undefeated heading into the B1G title game next week against Ohio State, plus can retain possession of the Paul Bunyan Axe for the 14th consecutive time.

Not only that, the Badgers can do something that no other team in Wisconsin history has ever done. That is, take the series lead against their biggest rival who they have been playing since 1890.

Green Bay Packers: Jamaal Williams Gets His Chance to Shine Now at Running Back

Jamaal Williams vs. da Bears

Having a solid ground game is always a plus for the Green Bay Packers once the weather starts getting cold, damp and snowy in the region where the Fox River connects to the bay off Lake Michigan.

The Packers have been blessed with two of the best quarterbacks (Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers) to ever play in the NFL in the last quarter century, but from November through the end of the season and the postseason, it’s always a positive to have an effective running game as well.

In fact, if one looks at the NFL titles that the Packers won when they were victorious in Super Bowl XXXI with Favre at quarterback and Super Bowl XLV with Rodgers at quarterback, the team was very productive running the football in the postseason which later led to a Vince Lombardi Trophy.

It’s even more important to have a running game you can count on when you are playing a young backup quarterback like the Packers currently are doing with Brett Hundley, due to the broken collarbone suffered by Rodgers in Week 6 versus the Minnesota Vikings.

And right now, even with injuries at the running back position, the Packers have been very solid in running the football in a number of categories.

Going into the matchup Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field versus the 4-5 Baltimore Ravens, the 5-4 Packers know they will be without rookie Aaron Jones (MCL sprain) and it also looks like Ty Montgomery (ribs) will also miss the game, based on comments made by head coach Mike McCarthy on Friday.

Jones was a having a great rookie campaign before his knee injury, which will keep him out of the lineup for several weeks. Up until the injury, , which he suffered last Sunday against the Chicago Bears, Jones had rushed for 370 (5.3 yards per carry average) and scored three touchdowns. Plus, Jones had broken off three runs of 20-plus yards or more.

Montgomery first hurt his ribs in Week 4 against the Bears at Lambeau and then hurt them again last week against da Bears at Soldier Field. So far in 2017, Montgomery has rushed for 270 yards (3.8 yards per carry average) and three touchdowns.

Because of the injuries in the Chicago game, the Packers called on Jamaal Williams, another rookie running back, to carry the load. Williams carried 20 times for 67 yards, as the Packers beat the Bears 23-16.

Before we can look ahead and surmise about how effective Williams and company will do versus the Ravens and also down the stretch in the 2017 season, let’s first look at how good the running game has been for the Packers compared to other NFL teams.

Currently, the Packers are ranked 18th in rushing offense in the NFL. But that doesn’t tell the real story. The Packers are tied for fifth in the league in two very important categories. They are yards per carry average (4.5) and touchdowns (nine).

Plus, Green Bay running backs have only fumbled the ball once in 2017, which ties them for the league lead in that category as well.

Williams is a different type of runner compared to both Jones and Montgomery. No. 30 is more of straight-ahead, grinding between-the-tackles type of running back. Where as both Jones and Montgomery are more cut and run type of backs that can be very effective running to the outside.

Plus, both Jones (eight catches for 16 yards) and Montgomery (23 catches for 173 yards and one score) are better receivers than Williams. That being said, Williams is a better blocking back without a doubt and that’s important when a young quarterback like Hundley goes through his reads going back to pass.

Williams can catch the ball as well, as he has five catches for 45 yards. Overall for the season, Williams has run for 101 yards on 31 carries, which averages out to a very pedestrian 3.3 yards per carry average. Williams also has a rushing touchdown.

The Packers decided to load up at the running back position in the 2017 NFL draft, when they drafted Williams in the fourth round, Jones in the fifth round and Devante Mays in the seventh round.

Expect to see Mays getting some carries on Sunday backing up Williams versus the Ravens.

Speaking of Baltimore, although their defense has been fairly solid in 2017 (6th in total defense), the Ravens struggle in stopping the run, as they are ranked 28th in the NFL, as they give up an average of 125.9 yards per game.

Jamaal Williams II

Getting back to Williams, NFL scout Chris Landry was very impressed with what he saw of Williams at the Senior Bowl.

This is what Landry said about Williams after the first day of practice at Mobile that week:

“BYU’s Jamaal Williams entered as the expected top running back and looked the part after Day 1. Williams is a smooth runner, and was making nice cuts during team drills and was consistently the most productive of the running back group. Williams simply looked natural.”

This is what Landry said about Williams at the next practice:

“I was surprised by the speed and quickness Williams showed. He hits the hole with authority and ran hard all day.”

This is what Landry opined about Williams the following day at practice:

“Williams was one of the better backs of the day. He ran the ball well on the inside, picking his way through the traffic and he also looked terrific catching the ball out of the backfield. He was the best of all the backs in blocking drills.”

And after the Packers selected Williams in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL draft, here is what Landry said about the former BYU star:

“A decisive, downhill grinder on college tape, Williams is a two-down back with a ceiling in the Alfred Morris range. That said, he could find himself with a big rookie role behind Ty Montgomery.”

In his career at BYU, Williams rushed for 3,901 yards (5.4 average) and 35 touchdowns. Williams also added 60 receptions for 567 yards and another score.

In 2016, the 6’0″, 212-pound Williams rushed for 1,375 yards and 12 touchdowns, which includes one game when Williams ran 287 yards and five touchdowns before an ankle injury sidelined him.

The bottom line is that there is still a lot of upside for Williams to be very successful in the NFL.

This is what running backs coach Ben Sirmans said about Williams being the man toting the rock for the Pack.

“He’s a downhill runner,” Sirmans said, “trying to get four yards-plus, very aggressive. I think it just took him some time to get a comfort level just with what we were doing. And once that happened, he just relaxed and stopped being as conservative as he was as a runner, and figured, ‘Hey man, this is just like running in college,’ at least from the way he goes about his business.

“The things that we thought he possessed is what he showed.”

We shall see how Williams plays this Sunday against the Ravens and later on in the season, but based on the insightful comments I’ve heard from from people in the know like Landry and Sirmans, I like his chances of succeeding.

Michigan vs. Wisconsin: By the Numbers

Wisconsin-vs-Michigan

When the No. 5-ranked (College Football Playoff) and the 10-0/7-0 Wisconsin Badgers take on the No. 24-ranked (CFP) and the 8-2/5-2 Michigan Wolverines at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday afternoon, a lot will be on the line.

For the Badgers, they need to remain unbeaten for a chance to be in the four-team college football playoff. Right now, Wisconsin sits behind No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Miami (FL.) and No. 4 Oklahoma.

Of the top five teams in the CFP, only Wisconsin is playing a ranked opponent.

Wisconsin has already clinched the B1G West and will play in the B1G championship game.

Michigan also has something on the line. The Wolverines can win 10 games this year by beating the Badgers on Saturday and then Ohio State (8-2/6-1) next week at Ann Arbor. If that does indeed happen, the Wolverines would still have a slim chance of also winning the B1G East.

But for that to happen, both Penn State (8-2/5-2) and Michigan State (7-3/5-2) must each lose one more game this season, as both the Nittany Lions and Spartans beat the Wolverines in a head to head matchup this season.

But before we look at how the two teams stack up against each other statistically in the upcoming game on Saturday in Madison, I wanted to look at some historical numbers of how this rivalry has played out over the years.

In the big picture, the Wolverines have dominated, as they hold a 50-14-1 edge over the Badgers in the all-time series between the two teams. The first game between the two teams was in 1892, when Michigan won 10-6. Yes, you read that correctly. The Badgers and Wolverines first played 125 years ago.

In recent years, like in the past quarter century or so since Barry Alvarez arrived on the scene at Wisconsin, first as head coach and now as athletic director, and the Badgers have become a force in the Big 10, the rivalry between the two schools has been more even-handed.

In the 15 games that the two teams have played sine 1993, the Wolverines have won nine of those games, but the Badgers have won two out of the last three.

Harbaugh and Chryst

In terms of the 2017 matchup, both teams are led by head coaches who once played quarterback for the schools they now coach.

Paul Chryst has done a fabulous job since taking over the reins at Wisconsin and now has 31-6 record with the Badgers in three seasons, which includes two straight B1G West championships, two straight bowl wins (Holiday and Cotton) and also winning the Big Ten Coach of the Year award in 2016.

Jim Harbaugh is now in his third year at Michigan as head coach and has a 28-8 record, which includes two bowl appearances (Citrus and Orange), as Michigan split those two bowl games, winning the 2016 Citrus Bowl.

Chryst and Harbaugh coached against each other last season, as the Wolverines beat the Badgers 14-7 at Michigan Stadium.

As both teams get ready for the game on Saturday, the focus will be on each of the defenses, as both Wisconsin and Michigan are exceptional on that side of the ball.

Michigan is ranked No. 3 in total defense in the country, which includes being ranked second in passing defense and ninth in rushing defense.

Wisconsin is ranked No. 1 in total defense, which includes being ranked first in rushing defense and seventh in passing defense. And this is a defense that is being led by Jim Leonhard, who is a first-year defensive coordinator and in only his second year of coaching.

In terms of other defensive categories, Wisconsin is ranked third in scoring defense (13.4 points per game), while Michigan is ranked ninth (16.4 points per game).

The Badgers are ranked fourth (3.50 per game) in the country in sacks, while the Wolverines are tied for seventh (3.30 per game).

As one might be able to see just by a quick glance at the numbers put together by each of the defenses in this game, both the Wisconsin and Michigan offenses will have their work cut out for them.

By the numbers, the Badgers have an advantage here.

Wisconsin is ranked 36th in total offense in the country, which includes being ranked 17th in rushing offense and 96th in passing offense.

Meanwhile, Michigan is ranked 94th in total offense, which includes being ranked 31st in rushing offense and 113th in passing offense.

In terms of time of possession, Wisconsin is ranked second in the country as they hold the ball for an average of 35 minutes per game.

Michigan is ranked 18th in the country in that category, as they hold the ball an average of 32 minutes per game.

The reason that both teams can hold the ball so long is their ability to run the ball so effectively.

Jonathan Taylor vs. Iowa

The Badgers are led by freshman Jonathan Taylor, who is third in the nation with 1,525 yards rushing and also has 12 touchdowns.

Michigan’s top running back is junior Karan Higdon, who has rushed for 854 yards and 10 scores.

A game like the one we will see on Saturday could come down to turnovers and also the play of special teams.

The turnover battle is where Wisconsin has to be concerned. Alex Hornibrook has thrown 12 interceptions this season, while Michigan as a team has thrown just seven.

Now Hornibrook is ranked 12th in the country in passing efficiency (155.6), as he has also thrown 17 touchdown passes and has thrown for 1,863 yards. But his recent propensity to throw picks has to be concerning.

Meanwhile since Brandon Peters has taken over as quarterback of the Wolverines, the team has won three straight games and he has thrown four touchdown passes without a pick.

Both Wisconsin and Michigan have coughed up the ball at inopportune times, as each have fumbled seven times.

The weather forecast for Saturday’s game won’t make things any easier for each team in terms of holding onto the ball, as the forecast is calling for a 90 percent chance of a rain/snow mix with temperatures in the 30s. The wind will also be a factor (18 mph).

That could also effect the kicking game of each team.

Michigan is ranked 88th in the country in net punting (36.91), while Wisconsin is ranked 95th in that category (36.62).

The return games of both Wisconsin and Michigan are a bit mediocre. The Wolverines are ranked 54th in punt returns (8.19) and 100th in kickoff returns (19.57), while Wisconsin is tied for 85th in punt returns (6.00) and is 50th in kickoff returns (21.90).

It’s also important to note that Michigan has blocked two kicks and one punt, while Wisconsin has not blocked any kicks or punts.

In terms of the kickers, the Badgers seem to have the advantage.

Rafeal Gaglianone of Wisconsin is tied for 30th in the country in field goal percentage, as he has made 10-of-12 field goals for an .833 percentage.

Meanwhile, Quinn Nordin of Michigan is tied for 60th in the country, as he has made 14-of-19 field goal attempts for a .737 percentage.

So what do I expect in this contest? I see the defenses of each team dominating for the most part in this game, although the Badgers do have the advantage on offense. But in a tight game like this one should be, not turning the ball over and being solid in the kicking game will the key factors in this game.

Whoever does the best in those two categories will most likely win the game.

I do see the Badgers winning, but it won’t be easy and mistakes (turnovers and penalties) must be kept at a minimum.

A Scout’s Take on Whether the Wisconsin Badgers Will Be in the College Football Playoff

Badgers College Football Playoff

The 9-0/6-0 Wisconsin Badgers head into their huge matchup against the 6-3/3-3 Iowa Hawkeyes at Camp Randall Stadium knowing that they have a great opportunity to move up in the College Football Playoff rankings.

Currently, the Badgers are ranked No. 8 in the rankings. Wisconsin is also ranked No. 6 in the AP Top 25 and No. 3 in the Coaches Poll. But the most important one is CFP rankings.

Iowa is now ranked No. 20 in the CFP rankings, due to their 55-24 blowout of Ohio State at Kinnick Stadium last Saturday.

So a win against Iowa would definitely add some credibility to the record of Wisconsin, who have been criticized by some for playing a soft schedule on their way to a so far undefeated season.

But no matter who is on the schedule, the Badgers have been playing with a one game at a time mantra and it’s paid off so far in 2017.

The Badgers will also be helped by the fact four of the teams in front of them in the CFP rankings will be playing each other.  No. 3 Notre Dame will travel to Miami to play the No. 7 Hurricanes, plus No. 6 TCU travels to Norman to play No. 5 Oklahoma.

If the Badgers beat Iowa, they should move in front of the two losers of the matchups listed above.

Also, No. 1 Georgia will have a very difficult matchup against No. 10 Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Is if that wasn’t enough, No. 2 Alabama travels to No. 16 Mississippi State in another Top 20 CFP matchup.

Bottom line, something is going to give in the CFP rankings after this weekend.

All that being said, I wanted to get a read on the CFP rankings by talking with one of the best in the business, NFL scout Chris Landry. I had another opportunity to talk with Landry on 620 WDAE’s Steve Duemig Show on Wednesday.

Before Landry gave me his take on the CFP rankings, I told him that I basically agreed with a comment recently made by Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez.

“There’s no part of me that says if you go undefeated as a Power 5 (Conference team) and win our conference championship, and you’re not going to be in the final four?” Alvarez said. “I don’t see that. That would shock me.”

Landry then offered a lengthy opinion about the matter.

“Here’s the thing about that,” Landry said. “Barry is politicking because he’s not on the committee. Are we going to pick the four best teams or are we going to have these rules like having an unbeaten team in there? There are no such rules. That just goes to tell you where the politics are. Barry was part of the politics [formerly a CFP committee member] and that’s why the system is flawed and you can’t trust those guys.

“If you are picking the four best teams in the country, I’m sorry, but Wisconsin is not one of them. 13-0 and 14-0, their not. I don’t care what they do, they [the CFP committee] are going to put in who they want to put in. And if you don’t think that there is politics or pressure from the likes of Jim Delany [Big 10 Commissioner], you are fooling yourself.

“The bottom line is that Wisconsin is not one of the four best. They don’t look like one of the four best. Right now they would not be ranked any higher than seventh in terms of film evaluation. I like the team and I think they are a good team. But I don’t think they are close to a Georgia or an Alabama. Are they going to get in? I don’t know. I don’t know what 13 other people are going to vote to put in.

“But if you put them in because they are unbeaten and they are a Power 5 school, what does that really mean? That’s great, that’s fine. But you are not picking the four best. To me, it’s just be straight with everyone. And make the rules. You have to win your conference or take the conference champion and expand it. But don’t sit there and say, because it’s sort of nebulous as to who the best four teams are. Well, a lot of these people who are voting don’t know how to determine who the four best teams are.

“So they are going to say that this team went unbeaten and it’s not their fault who they played. Yes, it’s not their fault, but don’t you think that it contributes to their unbeaten record as opposed to going through a more difficult schedule. To me, this will play it’s way out. I think Michigan is going to be a tough game for Wisconsin. They are starting to play better offensively with their new quarterback. So, we’ll see.

“I think if they are able to beat Michigan State or Ohio State [B1G title game], I think that’s great. It’s a great season. But because you go unbeaten in one given conference doesn’t make you automatically one of the four best teams in the country.

“I don’t know how people determine the four best, but for me, it’s on film. Others are going to look at it differently. I can’t tell you who the four best will be in December. I’ll answer that then. But right now, it’s Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame and Clemson. And quite frankly, it’s not even close.”

Jonathan Taylor shakes Paul Chryst's hand

That opinion might jolt some in Badger Nation, but it comes from someone who is one the best in his craft in terms of evaluating players and teams on film. We are also talking about a scout who has been very high on the Badgers going back to July when I first started conversing with him about how Wisconsin would play in the upcoming season. Back then, Landry considered the Badgers the best in the Big 10 West and one of the top four teams in the conference.

Landry also talked about the games this weekend and the possible future of the Badgers in the College Football Playoff.

“Let me say this, I think Miami is not as good as people think,” Landry said. ” I think that will be proven this week. Also, Oklahoma and TCU are playing one another. So Wisconsin is going to move up, Bob.

“I’m going to look and see if they beat a good Iowa team and then they go ahead and take care of Michigan, I’m going to be impressed by that. And if they beat Minnesota and then beat Michigan State [or Ohio State], they will move up. And it’s very possible that at that time, the fourth best team in the country is Wisconsin. But right now, they’re not.”

Green Bay Packers: D is for Disappointing

Dom Capers II

This was going to be the year that the defense of the Green Bay Packers was going to approach the success it had had in the first two years that Dom Capers was the coordinator of the unit.

In 2009, which was the first year Capers became defensive coordinator, the defense was ranked No. 2 in the NFL. In 2010, the year the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, the defense was ranked No. 5 in total defense.

Since then, the Packers have not come close to that success. From 2011 through 2016, the defense of the Packers has been ranked 32nd, 11th, 25th, 15th, 15th and 22nd.

Through nine games in 2017 the Packers are ranked 25th in total defense in the league, as the D is allowing an average of 357.4 yards per game. And based on the performance the defense had on Monday night versus the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field, don’t expect the rankings to get any better throughout the rest of the 2017 season.

Just to illustrate how bad and inept the defense was on Monday night, the Lions did not have to punt once all evening. That is the first time that has happened for Detroit since the 1971 season.

Quarterback Matt Stafford just carved up the defense of the Packers, as there was little to no pass pressure from the Green Bay Front 7. The Packers did get one sack, but that was only when the Lions attempted a flea flicker pass.

In the game, Stafford completed 26-of-33 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns. That adds up to a passer rating of 132.4.

That can’t happen against a Capers’ defense. Not if it wants to be successful. The key to any defense Capers runs, is putting pressure on the quarterback and disrupting his rhythm.

That isn’t happening in 2017 and that hasn’t happened consistently since 2010 either.

Currently, the the Packers are ranked 20th in passing defense, but that stat does not tell the total story.  The Packers are ranked 25th in the NFL in allowing opposing quarterbacks to have a very solid passer rating of 95.7.

And this is with a new and improved secondary, as the team drafted cornerback Kevin King in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft and safety Josh Jones in the second round. Plus, the team added cornerback Davon House in free agency, which is his second stint with the team.

But even when there is more talent and athleticism in the secondary, that won’t lead to success if there isn’t pass pressure on the opposing quarterbacks, which is supposed to lead to sacks, incompletions and interceptions.

It also doesn’t help when the two starting safeties of the Packers have largely been non-factors this season. Morgan Burnett has been hampered by hamstring and groin injuries, while Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has been largely invisible after going to the Pro Bowl and having second-team All-Pro status in 2016.

But again, the the number one reason why a Capers defense is successful is by bringing pass pressure and getting sacks. And that’s not happening this season.

The Packers are tied for 28th in the NFL with 13 sacks. That’s barely over one sack a game on average.

Clay Matthews can still play, but he is not the pass-rushing force he once was, as he has just 2.5 sacks so far this season. Nick Perry has been hampered by a broken hand, but does lead the team in sacks with four.

Meanwhile, Julius Peppers, who had 25 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and two interceptions (both for touchdowns) in three years with the Packers, left the team this past offseason via free agency and now has 7.5 sacks for the Carolina Panthers.

It is not known how much or even if the Packers made an offer to Peppers to stay in Green Bay, or if Peppers just wanted to go back to the place he started his NFL career and where he calls home.

No matter, Peppers would have definitely helped the pass rush for the Packers this season. Much better than the players who back up Matthews and Perry at outside linebacker currently, that’s for sure.

Kyler Fackrell has been almost non-existent when he’s on the field, as he has just nine total tackles, zero sacks and multiple missed assignments. Ahmad Brooks can help when he’s healthy, but he’s missed the last three games due to concussion/back issues.

Vince Biegel IV

Fourth-round pick Vince Biegel saw his first action of the season Monday night at OLB, after starting the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list. It’s too early to see how Biegel might be able to help the pass rush.

Speaking of draft picks, general manager Ted Thompson traded back four spots when the Packers had the 29th pick in the first round.  The Packers then selected King in the second round with the 33rd pick of the draft, plus got another fourth-round pick which they used to select Biegel.

King looks like he has some excellent upside with his size, speed and athleticism. But Thompson could have stayed where he was at No. 29 in the draft and selected OLB T.J. Watt, who is having a great rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

As a matter of fact, I had the Packers taking Watt in both my first mock draft and my last.

Watt has 28 total tackles, four sacks and one pick for a Pittsburgh defense that has gotten back it’s old swagger. The Steelers are fifth in the NFL in total defense and are tied for fourth in sacks with 26. Opposing QBs only have a 74.4 passer rating against Pittsburgh as well.

That is how the a Capers defense is supposed to function.

Since Mike McCarthy hired Capers in 2009, it’s not like the Packers haven’t been successful. In fact, they have been very prosperous. The team has been to the postseason for eight straight years going into this season. That includes one Super Bowl win, three appearances in the NFC title game and five NFC North titles.

But it is also in the postseason where we have seen some of the cracks and deficiencies of a Capers-run defense. Granted, in some case there have been injury issues, like in the NFC title game versus Atlanta last season, but for the most part, the defense has been exposed in many of those games.

Since the 2011 postseason, the Packers have played in 11 games, winning five of them. In the six losses, the Packers have given up an average of 33.8 points per game. That won’t get it done.

Plus, in those same six losses, the Packers offense averaged 22.3 points per game. Three touchdowns per game usually gets a NFL team a win in the postseason.

So, what to do? I’ve heard a lot of talk from Packer Nation about firing Capers immediately. That will not happen. I do believe the writing is on the wall for a change this coming offseason though.

But right now, the Packers have some other big issues. The team is on a downward spiral due to the broken collarbone suffered by quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the Week 6 game against the Minnesota Vikings. The Packers lost that game and the two games since then, to see their record fall to 4-4 and two games behind the Vikings in the NFC North.

To make matters even worse, right offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga suffered a torn ACL against the Lions on Monday night and is out for the season.

Brett Hundley has struggled since taking over for Rodgers, but in the game versus the Lions, No. 7 showed some definite improvement.

Rodgers can come back from IR (injured reserve) in Week 15, but that will only happen if he his collarbone is fully healed and also if the Packers are still in postseason contention.

Aaron Rodgers after game with the Lions

This is what Rodgers said about his coming back last week when he spoke to the media.

“I want to be healthy. That’s the most important thing,” Rodgers said last Friday. “But if we’re healthy in eight weeks and it would make sense to come back, then I’m going to come back.

“The only reason to come back would be that I’m healed completely. If that doesn’t happen in eight weeks, there’s not even a conversation.”

There also won’t be a conversation if the Packers are out of contention for a spot in the postseason. There would be no reason to risk further injury to Rodgers for just the two remaining games of the season.

And based on the way that all three phases of the football team are struggling right now, the postseason does not look likely.

I do see the offense getting better behind Hundley at QB, but will that improvement be enough to overcome the issues that both the defense and special teams have right now?

To me, the answer is no.

Now, things could change. Maybe Biegel and fellow rookie Montravius Adams will add some spark to the pass rush. Adams would most certainly help, as the defensive line of the Packers has just two sacks this season, with Mike Daniels leading the way with 1.5.

But somehow things have to change on the defensive side of the ball. The good news is that I’m still seeing effort from the defensive players. Blake Martinez is playing exceptional and is fourth in the NFL with 74 tackles.

But the scheme is not working. Maybe that’s because Capers doesn’t have the players he needs to make it more successful. If that’s the case, then part of the blame need to go to Thompson.

Still, Capers has been defensive coordinator for the Packers now for nine years. Based on what has happened this season and looking at the totality of the work done by Capers in his tenure in Green Bay, I don’t see Capers returning for a 10th season.

 

It’s One Game at a Time for the 8-0 Wisconsin Badgers

Jonathan Taylor shakes Paul Chryst's hand

The 8-0 Wisconsin Badgers, who are ranked 4th in the country in both the Associated Press Top 25 poll and the Coaches poll, have to feel a little like Rodney Dangerfield after the Playoff Rankings were announced on Tuesday night.

The Badgers are only ranked ninth in the rankings, as they saw six one-loss teams ranked ahead of them. The reason? The relatively weak schedule of the Badgers. Still, you play the schedule you are given and the Badgers have so far come out unscathed after eight games, which includes being 5-0 in the Big Ten West.

“We’re two-thirds done with our regular season and it’s how we finish,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said before the rankings were announced. “We finish by getting better. Good teams get better.

“We as coaches give them areas they can get better at and they’ve got to focus on that, champion that.”

The formula for the Badgers is to play one game at a time and to see where that puts them at the end of the season. Wisconsin has four games remaining on their schedule. They play 3-5/0-5 Indiana on the road on Saturday. and then play back to back games at Camp Randall Stadium against 5-3/2-3 Iowa and 6-2/3-2 Michigan.

The Badgers then finish the season in the annual Paul Bunyan Axe game against 4-4/1-4 Minnesota on the road.

The Badgers will focus on one opponent at a time, which has been the mantra of Chryst ever since he took over the team in 2015. Chryst has led the Badgers to 29-6 record since then, which includes wins in both the Holiday Bowl and the Cotton Bowl.

That approach has led the Badgers to an unbeaten record up to this point and the team will be favored to win all four of their remaining games. If indeed that happens, the Badgers will win the B1G West and take on the Ohio State Buckeyes most likely in the B1G Championship Game.

A win in the Big Ten title game will most certainly gain the Badgers a spot in the four-team playoffs.

But for now, the Badgers will just focus on the upcoming opponent and nothing more.

This week it’s Indiana.

“They don’t give you anything,” Chryst said. “I see that in this defense. You watch them, are they playing fast? Are they playing physical? To me that means the players understand what they’re doing and they go play fast.

“Those are the things you see from their defense. A good defense doesn’t give you anything, you have to go earn it. When you put on the tape, you see it’s a really good defense.”

The top player for the Hoosiers on offense is wide receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr., who goes 6’4″. Cobbs leads the Big 10 with 54 receptions.

“It’s a challenge with his physical size and you add the scheme to it,” Chryst said. “They do a great job with the slot (receivers). Across the board, they may present the biggest challenge offensively with the style and their ability to run the football. They commit to that. Our guys have to play sound defense.

“I know our guys are looking forward to because they know it’s going to be a challenge.”

In terms of what the Badgers will do, the story will remain the same. Control the time of possession with a punishing run game on offense and also play their usual aggressive and effective brand of defense.

Wisconsin is ranked second in the country in time of possession, as the Badgers hold the ball an average of 35 minutes per game.

The Badgers are ranked 16th in the country with an average of 245.8 yards per game. The ground game is led by freshman phenom Jonathan Taylor, who leads Wisconsin with 1,185 yards on 161 carries (7.4 yards per carry) and 11 touchdowns.

NFL scout Chris Landry loves what he has seen of Taylor.

“Taylor is a really big-time back if folks haven’t seen him,” Landry told me recently. “I think people kind of assume that Wisconsin is going to have a good back every year and maybe that diminishes the value of each individual one, but this kid is special. This kid has real special qualities. And he’s exerting it at a very young age.”

Jonathan Taylor I

Taylor is listed as questionable versus Indiana after injuring his ankle against Illinois last week, but has practiced this week and should play.

Even without Taylor, the Badgers have a stable of other running backs who can get the job done. Backs like Bradrick Shaw (279 yards rushing and two TDs), Garrett Groshek (219 yards rushing and two TDs) and Rachid Ibrahim (116 yards rushing). Plus, Wisconsin also has Chris James (148 rushing yards), who has been out the past three weeks due to a leg injury,  and is now listed as questionable for the Indiana game.

The passing game of the Badgers has been a bit uneven the past few weeks, as quarterback Alex Hornibrook has thrown some untimely interceptions, but overall the play of No. 12 has been solid. For the year, Hornibrook has thrown 13 touchdown passes versus eight picks for 1,570 yards and has a 64.3 percent completion percentage.

The two biggest threats for the Badgers in terms of receptions are wide receiver Quintez Cephus (28 catches for 477 yards and five TDs) and tight end Troy Fumagalli (27 catches for 387 yards and three TDs).

Like past years, Wisconsin’s offense has a huge offensive line leading the way. The line this year doesn’t have a senior in the group, as the Badgers lineup junior Michael Dieter (6’6″, 328) at left tackle, sophomore Jon Dietzen (6’6″, 336) at left guard, redshirt freshman Tyler Biadasz (6’3″, 316) at center, junior Beau Benzschawel (6’6″, 317) at right guard and sophomore David Edwards (6’7″, 317) at left tackle.

The defense this year is led by Jim Leonhard, who is the third defensive coordinator the team has had in three years.

This is only Leonhard’s second season as a coach in college football and he’s already a defensive coordinator after spending his first year as defensive backs coach.

Leonhard certainly has the pedigree to be successful at Wisconsin, as he was a former walk-on who started his collegiate career in 2002 under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove.

The 5’8″, 188-pound Leonhard led the country in interceptions in 2002 with 11 and finished with 21 picks in his career as a Badger, which ties him for first for the most in history of Wisconsin football. Leonhard was also named All- Big 10 for three straight seasons, as well as being named All-American for those three seasons too.

Leonhard also played 10 years in the NFL with a number of teams and finished with 427 total tackles, 4.5 sacks, 36 passes defensed, 14 interceptions (one for a TD), two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

Landry is also impressed with Leonhard.

Jim Leonhard II

“Jim is an outstanding young coach,” Landry said. “He’s an outstanding young coordinator. He understands the game from the back end very well. He’s really adjusted to putting fronts and coverages together. I think he’s done an outstanding job. This is very good Wisconsin team.”

The statistics bear that out. Wisconsin is ranked fifth in the country in total defense, fifth in scoring defense, fifth in rushing defense, fifth in sacks, sixth in red zone defense, 15th in passing defense and No. 1 in team passing efficiency defense.

It’s truly a team effort on defense, but some standouts include outside linebacker Garrett Dooley (6.5 sacks), inside linebacker T.J. Edwards (three interceptions, including one for a TD) and cornerback Nick Nelson (14 passes defended, which is third in the country).

The kicking game has also been solid for the Badgers, as Rafael Gaglianone has converted 8-of-10 field goals and is a perfect 36-of-36 in extra points, while Anthony Lotti has averaged 40 yards per punt.

Bottom line, the Badgers have an opportunity to have a very special season. Maybe the greatest ever in Wisconsin football history. But there will be no looking ahead.

Except for focusing on the opponent next on the schedule. That formula has worked well so far in the 2017 season for the Badgers and perhaps it will beyond as well.

The Bye Week and the Lions are a Good Combination for the Packers

Lions vs. Packers

As the 4-3 Green Bay Packers prepare for their Monday night meeting against the 3-4 Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field, there is some good news and bad news heading into the game.

Let’s start with the bad news first. Brett Hundley has not exactly set the world on fire since replacing Aaron Rodgers as the starting quarterback of the Packers, after No. 12 broke his collarbone early in the game against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on October 15.

Since then, Hundley has completed 30-of-58 passes (52 percent completion percentage) for 244 yards, which includes throwing just one touchdown pass compared to four interceptions. That adds up to a very poor 39.8 passer rating.

Granted, Hundley had to face one of the best defenses in the NFL when he had to come in relief of Rodgers versus the Vikings, but it was expected that he would do much better against the New Orleans Saints at Lambeau, seeing as they were ranked 26th in the NFL in total defense going into the game on October 22.

Still, Hundley has the potential and talent to be much better, like he showed in his career at UCLA and also with the Packers in the 2015 preseason, when he led the NFL with 630 passing yards, completed 45-of-65 passes (69.2 percent), plus had seven TD passes versus just one pick.

The Packers don’t expect Hundley to even come close to the numbers (13 TD passes vs.  three picks for 1,385 yards and a 103.2 passer rating) that Rodgers was putting up prior to his injury, but they need Hundley to take his game up a notch or two.

And history says that he just might do that against the Lions. For one thing, Mike McCarthy has a 9-2 record after the bye week since becoming head coach in 2006. In addition to that, McCarthy has never lost a game at Lambeau after the bye week.

That includes beating the Lions three times after the bye week, which includes two victories at 1265 Lombardi Avenue.

Overall, McCarthy and the Packers seem to have the number of the Lions. Since 2006, the Packers have a 18-4 record against the Lions. That includes a 10-1 record at Lambeau against Detroit.

As a matter of fact, the Lions have only won one game in the state of Wisconsin since 1991, and that was in 2015 when Mason Crosby had a chance to win the game in the final seconds, but he badly miss-hit his 52-yard field goal attempt.

Both the Packers and Lions are struggling on both sides of the ball right now. The Lions are ranked 19th in total offense in the NFL currently, while the Packers are ranked 22nd. In terms of total defense, the Lions are ranked 21st, while the Packers are ranked 23rd.

But even with those less than mediocre stats, there are more factors besides history which can help Hundley and the Packers on Monday night against the Lions.

For one, the entire starting offensive line practiced on Tuesday, as left guard Lane Taylor returned. It would be a huge development if the Packers will have the services of Taylor, left tackle David Bakhtiari, center Corey Linsley, right guard Jahri Evans and right tackle Bryan Bulaga on Monday night.

That is especially important, due to all the injuries (most notably at offensive tackle) and the line-shuffling the team has had to go through up to this point in the season. Consistency on offense starts in the trenches in the NFL.

Another reason to be excited is the new and improved running game which has put rookie running back Aaron Jones into the limelight. Since Jones has come onto the scene, No. 33 has rushed for 346 yards (5.6 yards per carry average) and scored three touchdowns.

In fact, Jones has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the games he has started at running back.

With Jones and also Ty Montgomery at running back, plus having receivers like Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb, not to mention a tight end like Martellus Bennett, Hundley has a number of weapons to work with.

But the biggest factor which might aid Hundley as he goes up against the Lions, is the return of Rodgers, who came back to Green Bay on Tuesday after being in the Los Angeles area for several days for his surgery and his initial recovery.

McCarthy sees that as a big plus, as he talked to the media on Tuesday.

“When he walks in the room, he has great presence,” McCarthy said talking about Rodgers. “So it’s great to have him back. I think really him stepping away and being out of town, I think, really helped him deal with his situation. But he’s Aaron. I’m not going to say it, but he feels good about the way things are going so far. I got a full, detailed look at everything with him and Dr. McKenzie this morning. Yeah, it’s great having him back in the building.”

Mike, Aaron and Brett

McCarthy also talked about how Rodgers can help Hundley.

“The biggest thing he can get to Brett is just to play a little faster,” McCarthy said. “That’s something as a football team we need to do a better job of. We need to play faster, both offense and defense. So Aaron can assist in that.

“The fact of the matter is we’ve got to get dialed into the game plan (for the Lions), and that process is the same for Aaron that it is for any quarterback. He’ll definitely help Brett with that.”

Hundley stayed in Green Bay during the bye week as he continues to try and get more comfortable running the offense of the Packers. The Packers are also adding another practice this week, which will only help Hundley as he continues to get reps.

“He [Hundley] was in here working out pretty much during the course of the week,” McCarthy said. “I think that’s always beneficial when you can step away from the normal schedule and push the focus toward the individual, and he’ll have an extra practice today. We’ll be able to do some situational work, he’ll have an extra two-minute drill that he’ll participate in today. We’ll be able to get into the whole normal down and distance run and pass game today, so he’ll have a head start and have extra work going into the Monday night game.”

Bottom line, as Zeke Bratkowski told me a couple of weeks ago, the key for Hundley is to stay within himself and also within the offensive concept of the team.

Add that together with all of the other positive things which are going on for the Packers currently, and Green Bay has a great opportunity to go 5-3 on the season and 2-1 in the NFC North on Monday night.