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Penn State Nittany Lions-Wisconsin Badgers Picks Against the Spread

SportsLine analyst Josh Nagel breaks down a Big 10 title game between Penn State and Wisconsin that is likely to cause havoc in the final playoff rankings. Here is his analysis and spread recommendation.
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BIG 10 TITLE GAME: WISCONSIN BADGERS VS. PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS (+2.5, O/U 47.5), Sat., 8 p.m. ET

This unlikely Big 10 title matchup between Penn State (10-2) and Wisconsin (10-2) has all the makings of a nightmare for the College Football Playoff Committee, as it is guaranteed to have a two-loss major conference champion to consider for an invitation.

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Penn State's 24-21 upset of Ohio State essentially knocked both the Buckeyes and Michigan out of the title game, as the head-to-head result was the tiebreaker in the East Division, where Penn State and Ohio State each finished 8-1.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin survived losses to both Ohio State and Michigan as it emerged from the much weaker West Division with a 7-2 conference record.

The Nittany Lions are riding an eight-game winning streak, with the past six coming by an average of 25 points, while the rugged Badgers have won six straight following back-to-back losses to the Wolverines and Buckeyes by 14 combined points.

They struggled with Minnesota in their regular-season finale before scoring 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to take a 31-17 victory.

JOSH NAGEL'S TAKE

Penn State coach James Franklin promised a faster and more efficient offense this season, and the transition has clearly paid off.

The varied sets and run-pass options, operated by emerging dual-threat Trace McSorley, have proven to be a huge upgrade over the stagnant pro-style approach used with Christian Hackenberg, who was a second-round NFL draft pick.

The Lions have one of the more balanced attacks in the country, with 251 passing yards per game to go along with 182.2 rushing yards to produce 36.6 points per contest.

But the key to their turnaround is the improvement of a defense that allowed 91 combined points in early losses to Michigan and Pittsburgh. The defense has allowed more than 30 points just once in its last eight games, lowering its scoring average to 22.8 (No. 31 nationally).  

Wisconsin led the nation in scoring defense last year and managed to match its success with an identical 13.7 ppg mark this year, third in the country.

The Badgers have struggled for offensive consistency, using a rotation of quarterbacks for moderate production, with 13 combined touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Their vaunted running game has crushed inferior opponents, but went for just 71 yards against Michigan. However, Wisconsin totaled more than 200 ground yards against both Ohio State and Nebraska.  

LINE MOVEMENT

The underdog appears to be getting the bulk of the early support in this one. Most markets opened with Wisconsin at the key number of -3, but that has been lowered to -2.5 at the majority of sportsbooks as of Wednesday afternoon.

The total has seen a slight shift downward, as openers of 48 have been lowered to 47.5 in most markets. I am anticipating more sentiment on the Under between now and kickoff.

SPORTSLINE EXPERTS

SportsLine data scientist Stephen Oh has a lean on the total in this game. Get his and all other SportsLine expert picks by clicking here.

SELECTION

From a handicapping perspective. I've been a fan of the Nittany Lions even since the early season when they struggled a bit. I liked the potential shown by McSorley and the offense, and figured Penn State would be extremely competitive if the defense made strides.

Looking back, it's hard to believe Penn State closed as a three-point home underdog to a mediocre Maryland team just two months ago. Those who believed in the Lions have been rewarded with covers in each of their eight straight wins, most with room to spare.

Even so, I am going to reverse course in this one. Penn State has beaten up on mostly meager opponents and struggled against the top defensive clubs it has faced.

I'm going to back the power puncher against the finesse boxer in this one, as Wisconsin should shut down Penn State’s offense and do enough to cover this short number. 

Josh Nagel