The hours and minutes leading up to the Gophers vs. Badgers football game Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium will be ruled by emotion, and the game itself is likely to be determined by a handful of big plays.
Before that, though, we have the dissection and prediction — trying to figure out, based on what has happened already, what will happen.
Along those lines, here’s some analysis that hopefully goes beyond some of the simple counting stats that are plain to see.
• The Gophers’ biggest advantage is at the most important spot on the field: quarterback.
The official NCAA site suggests the difference between Gophers QB Tanner Morgan (No. 6 in passing efficiency) and Wisconsin QB Jack Coan (No. 14) isn’t that significant.
But if we dig a little deeper and look at Pro Football Focus’ college starting quarterback rankings, we see a huge divide: Morgan is rated PFF’s ninth-best QB, while Coan is all the way down at No. 52 — probably because passing efficiency only takes into account raw stats while PFF’s measure factors in things such as positive plays, negative plays and overall expected points added.
Suffice to say, the Gophers need to be able to exploit that advantage Saturday.
• Wisconsin has an overall edge in other advanced stats.
ESPN’s Football Power Index is described as “a measure of team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team’s performance going forward for the rest of the season,” and it is boiled down to a single number that shows “how many points above or below average a team is.”
Wisconsin is No. 13 in the FPI at 20.3 points above average, while the Gophers are No. 17 at 14.0 points above average.
The Gophers have a slight edge on offense (No. 7 in efficiency to Wisconsin’s No. 9), most of that presumably coming from a passing game edge big enough to offset the ability of Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor — who Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said this week “may be one of the greatest running backs we’ve seen in my time of being a coach.”
The Badgers’ edge comes from defense (No. 8 compared to No. 37 for the Gophers in efficiency) and special teams (Wisconsin is just 71st, but the Gophers are way down at 126 out of 130 teams).
• Home-field advantage could be the mystery edge for Minnesota.
A lot has been written about the diminishing impact of home-field advantage in the NFL and college football in recent years, with theories running the gamut from easier travel to a better understanding of sleep to diminished atmospheres resulting from hard-core fans staying home to watch on flat-screen TVs.
If the edge used to be worth three or four points, advanced math and studies tell us it’s probably worth at least a point less these days under normal circumstances.
Saturday, however, does not fall under the category of normal circumstances. This isn’t some nonconference game or routine Big Ten opponent. This is the Gophers’ biggest rival coming to town for a sold-out game (lowest secondary market prices: $200) with the Big Ten West and a Rose Bowl bid (or more) on the line for Minnesota.
Minnesota hasn’t lost at home this year. The Badgers have lost twice on the road.
“It’s really exciting. Our players are excited. I’m sure Wisconsin is excited,” Fleck said. “There’s a lot on the line. Who would want it any other way?”