MADISON, Wis. — Harbaugh and Urban get the clicks and the Corsos, but the next three weeks are the money weeks, the business end of the deal:
At Iowa, vs. Nebraska, at Northwestern.
Take care of those, and the pain and sweat and toil that the 10th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers poured into the last three weeks — a hard-fought 14-7 loss at No. 3 Michigan, a bye and a hard-fought 30-23 overtime loss at home to No. 2 Ohio State — take on a different context.
A championship context.
The last three weeks proved the Badgers (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) can hang with anyone, anywhere. Wisconsin scared the snot out of Big Blue and had Ohio State down on the mat before quarterback J.T. Barrett pulled out his Heisman papers. The Badgers picked up as many national admirers in two defeats as they’d managed during their first four victories combined.
“It’s hard to put into words, and (I’m) not trying to be cocky or anything,” running back Corey Clement said. “But one of these games, they’ve got to mention us as a top contender, one of these days.
“But I believe they can’t do it unless we win. So that’s on us. I understand if we’re not in the talk, but I think we have the rest of the season to show what we can be, and hopefully reach the (College Football) Playoff.”
But in order to get a crack at Buckeyes or Wolverines again, the Badgers have to do one thing first:
Let them go.
Both of them.
It’s West division time. Business time. Over each of the previous two seasons, the winner of the head-to-head meetings among the power trio of the Badgers (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten), Hawkeyes (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) and Cornhuskers (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) has gone on to the conference championship game in Indianapolis.
In a way, Wisconsin’s season — or how the season will ultimately be judged — really begins with Week 8.
“What this group wants to be is the best team it can be,” coach Paul Chryst said after his Badgers fell to the unbeaten Buckeyes at Camp Randall Stadium. “This is our window. This is this year’s team’s window.”
And this is this year’s team’s single most important, telling stretch. It’s all West-division games from here on out, and the three toughest are right out of the gate: at Iowa on Saturday, home to No. 8 Nebraska on Oct. 29, and a visit to suddenly-surging Wildcats (3-3, 2-1) on Nov. 5.
Bucky has won four of its last five in Iowa City, including three victories in a row. Wisconsin has beaten Nebraska in four out the last five meetings as Big Ten brethren. But the Badgers are oh-fer-Evanston since the turn of the century — their last win at Northwestern was a 35-19 decision back on Oct. 30, 1999.
Drop one of the three, the road back to Indy will need a little mathematical help from someone else, somewhere else.
Drop two of the three, and the what-ifs starts coming out. Along with pained discussions about the physical and emotional price of playing so many Top-10 teams, real or perceived, so early in the schedule.
“We’ll worry about the Big Ten championship when it comes.”
— Corey Clement, Wisconsin running back
But anything’s possible now. Anything and everything. The title of the book on 2016 is still a giant blank.
A fortnight from now, that title will start to come into focus.
So will the cost, and the value, of that three-week stretch that included two of the best college football teams on the planet.
Clement said he expects to see Ohio State or Michigan, logically, to emerge as the East Division champion. He’s hoping the Badgers get a chance to settle an old score.
“But (we) really can’t look too far ahead. We’ve got Iowa (next), which is a great team as well,” Clement said. “So you’ve got pay your respect when it’s due. Next week is next week. We’ll worry about the (Big Ten) championship when it comes.”
With two losses on the slate, even though they’re close losses to a pair of absolute heavyweights, there’s no easy path back to the College Football Playoff for the Badgers.
But there is a clear one: Win the heck out.
That means beating Iowa in Iowa City this weekend. And knocking off unbeaten Nebraska at home in two weeks. And taking care of business in Evanston, finding that blasted Bucky-killing voodoo doll that’s buried somewhere beneath the unfriendly confines of Ryan Field.
“And anything is possible,” Clement said. “And the way this year is panning out, teams are losing left and right. (Or) winning. (There are) upsets. Hopefully we will squeeze right back into it.”
Hopefully. More people watched Badgers-Buckeyes trade blows on Saturday night than Cubs-Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, which is remarkable. It also says something: This needs to happen again.
And for it to happen again, Bucky has to take care of the business end of the datebook.
That has to start right here. Right now.
“Any more time we spend on (Ohio State) is just hurting us next week,” tight end Troy Fumagalli said. “So let’s move on.”
Amen. And the sooner the better.