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Wisconsin-Northwestern: A B1G one in the wild, wild West

Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire

When you’re talking Big Ten Conference football, it’s easy to focus on Nov. 26, the regular-season finale between the Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes. The second installment of Jim Harbaugh versus Urban Meyer is shaping up to be an epic battle, potentially a springboard to the College Football Playoff for the winner (and maybe the loser, who knows?).

But if you’re all about Wolverines-Buckeyes — period — you’re missing a pretty good story line: Who’s going to win the Big Ten West? Which team will potentially oppose the Michigan-Ohio State winner in the Big Ten Championship Game?

Flip a coin. Then flip it again. And again.

You still won’t have the answer.

Saturday’s game between the Wisconsin Badgers (6-2, 3-2) and Northwestern Wildcats (4-4, 3-2) could provide a major clue, maybe even serving as the most important game to break up one of the craziest log-jams in college football.

Nebraska (7-1, 4-1) still leads the division after last weekend’s 23-17 loss against the Badgers, but Saturday night, the Cornhuskers travel to Ohio State, so the race could tighten. There’s a four-way tie for second place among Wisconsin, Northwestern, Minnesota (6-2, 3-2) and Iowa (5-3, 3-2).

Logically, Wisconsin is the favorite to emerge from this dust-up. It has wins in hand against Nebraska and Iowa, while its only two defeats came against Michigan and Ohio State. The Badgers have defeated three teams that were ranked in the top 10 at the time (LSU, Michigan State and Nebraska), while losing by a touchdown against two others (Michigan and Ohio State).

Believe it or not, Wisconsin’s most difficult test could occur Saturday afternoon at Northwestern’s Ryan Field. The Badgers haven’t won there since 1999, when the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher, Ron Dayne, was a senior.

Since then, in a span of 17 seasons, Wisconsin has met Northwestern 10 times. The Wildcats lead 6-4, including a 4-0 mark in Evanston.

Who expected Northwestern to be a factor after it absorbed back-to-back home defeats against Western Michigan (22-21) and Illinois State (9-7) in September? People who wrote off the Wildcats were justifiably shocked in October, when Northwestern went 3-1, including victories against Iowa (38-31), Michigan State (54-40) and Indiana (24-14), along with a game effort at Ohio State, losing 24-20.

“It’s easy to come and show up for an Ohio State, or a Michigan or an Iowa,’’ Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson told reporters. “We’ve got to show up every game, and it’s really biting us in the butt right now. We’re a 4-4 football team, a .500 football team, and we know we shouldn’t be.’’

Wisconsin is wary.

The Badgers are ignoring the fans who have crowned them already, the people who believe a win against Nebraska (along with near-victories against Michigan and Oho State) provides the necessary evidence.

“It’s easy to buy into what people may be saying on the outside as far as getting through the gauntlet and this being the easy part of the schedule,’’ Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton told reporters. “No part of playing college football games is easy. Our whole thing is just not getting complacent.’’

If Badgers coach Paul Chryst has his way, that won’t happen.

“You’ve got to try and ignore all the outside noise because none of it matters,’’ Chryst said. “We know this is a tough stretch.’’

It begins Saturday with a game at Northwestern.

For Wisconsin, that’s nothing to take lightly.

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