Northwestern vs. Wisconsin rankings and odds: On being a ranked underdog

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern is ranked and Wisconsin isn't, but the Wildcats are double-digit underdogs. What?

Both oddsmakers and poll voters stayed pretty consistent in their opinions of Northwestern after a 40-30 loss to Ohio State, which leads to some pretty solid cognitive dissonance.

You see, Northwestern dropped three spots in the AP and Coaches polls, putting them at No. 19 and No. 18 respectively. Pretty solid for a team coming off a loss, and they're playing Wisconsin, who is unranked. So Northwestern's the better team, right?

On the other hand, Vegas saw Wisconsin as 10-point favorites at Camp Randall when the line opened -- and that's since been bumped up to 10.5 points in most books.

That leaves us with a really rare combination: a top-20 team playing an unranked opponent as a double-digit underdog.

The line is pretty consistent with the way lines have treated Northwestern and Wisconsin all year. Wisconsin had been 6.5-point underdogs to Ohio State on the road, and Northwestern was seven-point underdogs to Ohio State at home. Taking out the three points for home field advantage, Vegas thought Wisconsin was 3.5 points worse than Ohio State at a neutral site, and Northwestern was 10 points worse than Ohio State at a neutral site. That means Vegas thought Wisconsin was a tad over six points better than Northwestern at a neutral site, and when we shift the game to Madison, we get close to 10.

It's nice that neither voters nor linesmakers felt the need to penalize the Wildcats a lot for a close loss to Ohio State. But now we have to wonder who's estimation of the Wildcats is closer to being accurate, and, um... generally, it tends to be the guys making the books rather than the guys voting in polls.

Northwestern is in the uncommon scenario of being a ranked underdog, which sort of underscores how big of a game this is. The Wildcats are in this weird situation where they could be the best team in their division and start out 0-2 thanks to a vicious schedule. It'll still be possible to win the Big Ten after losing two games -- two games no other Legends Division contender (sorry, Iowa) has to play -- but it would require a six-game winning streak to close the year, and it would force the Wildcats to count on help from others.

NU is ranked because people can see and know that they're good. But what matters is wins and losses, and Vegas shows that this one won't be easy to come by.

It would've been crazy to call last week's game a "must-win," since, I mean, it's the No. 4 team in the country and you can do perfectly fine even if you lose that game. But like I said earlier, we're getting into the territory where Northwestern's goals for the season might not pan out if the team loses. "Must-win" is overused and rarely accurate, but the Wisconsin is close if you want this season to be a great one for the Cats.

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