Win the Big Ten or else.
Michigan knows the “or else” is not being eligible for a spot in the Bowl Championship Series as it begins a bid for a third straight Big Ten title Saturday at Wisconsin.
The Wolverines (2-1) took an 11-spot tumble in the rankings to No. 14 following their 17-10 loss to Notre Dame on Sept. 10. They stayed in the same position after routing Eastern Michigan 55-0 last Saturday.
Lloyd Carr’s team now turns its focus to the Big Ten, where a third consecutive championship would guarantee a spot in the BCS, and perhaps, a chance for the national title.
“Everyone knows what the big prize is up there,” Carr said. “And regardless of the way the BCS is set up, I think even before the BCS was set up, everybody knew that the polls were what determined the national championship, the polls are still very, very much involved in that selection.
“So I think obviously being in a conference that has an automatic berth into the BCS, you understand that that the Big Ten championship is still an extremely important goal.”
Michigan’s players see things the same way, but many have even greater aspirations as conference play begins.
“Just because you lose one game in college football, you’re never out of the national championship race,” senior wide receiver Carl Tabb said. “We know we’ve made the road a little tougher, but in terms of still being in the hunt, of course we’re still in the hunt.”
Carr was able to rest injured starting tailback Mike Hart in the win over Eastern Michigan, with backup Max Martin rushing for a career-best 117 yards and two touchdowns. Hart, who strained his hamstring in the loss to Notre Dame, is expected to play in this game.
Safety Ryan Mundy, though, will miss the rest of the season with what has been described as a “nerve injury.”
Michigan has won 23 straight Big Ten openers since a 21-14 loss at Wisconsin on Sept. 12, 1981.
Though the Wolverines have won their last three visits to Camp Randall Stadium, this will be the first time many of Carr’s players have ever been in such a hostile environment.
“We have a lot of guys who have been on the road. They just haven’t been to Madison,” Carr said. “We’ll have crowd noise. We had some crowd noise in our practices last week, which is a shock to guys who heard it for the first time, because you can’t hear. You can’t hear, the coach is yelling and he shouldn’t be because he can’t hear you anyway.”
Michigan, though, is 19-3-1 all-time at Camp Randall. These teams have not met since 2002, and the Wolverines have won the last six matchups to take a 47-10-1 lead in the all-time series.
Wisconsin (3-0) was expected to be in a rebuilding mode after having four defensive linemen drafted, but the team is determined to send coach Barry Alvarez out a winner in his final season before taking on the role of athletic director full-time.
The Badgers are fourth in the nation in rushing defense, allowing 39.7 yards per game, and have conceded only one touchdown in the last 10 quarters.
Brian Calhoun again proved to be a dependable tailback last Saturday, grinding out 171 yards on 38 carries and scoring both touchdowns in Wisconsin’s 14-5 victory at North Carolina.
Calhoun, who sat out last season after transferring from Colorado, has eight TDs and is third in the nation with an average of 157 yards rushing. He has keyed a ground attack that has totaled 817 yards and 13 scores through three games.
“I think what matters most is that when my team called my number, I responded,” Calhoun said. “Obviously, I was a focal point of the offense.”