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Wisconsin’s 21-day loss of Graham Mertz shakes up the Big Ten

On Tuesday, the fears of Wisconsin football fans were confirmed.

One day after his debut, it was reported that Mertz tested positive for COVID-19. He needed a second test to confirm that and on Tuesday morning, CBSSports’ Dennis Dodd reported that Mertz has tested positive for a second time. Because he tested positive for COVID-19, Mertz must now self-isolate for 10 days. After that isolation, Mertz will have to go through extensive cardiac testing before he can take the field again. The earliest any Big Ten student-athlete can return to competition after testing positive for COVID-19 is 21 days.

We wish Mertz a speedy and full recovery before getting into the analysis of how his absence might impact the Big Ten race. 

Mertz was the highest-rated QB signed by Wisconsin in recent memory. He was a four-star recruit on the 247Sports Composite and had an excellent All-American Bowl.

The second-year QB lit up the Illinois defense in his first start. He threw for 248 yards and five touchdowns while connecting on 20 of his 21 passing attempts. After that win, in which Mertz tied a school record for consecutive completions with 17, the Wisconsin quarterback admitted his team was playing with an edge.

Mertz will miss three weeks from the date of his first test, meaning that he will for sure miss this weekend’s contest at Nebraska and next week’s game against Purdue. Depending on when his first test was administered, he could also miss the Wisconsin game against Michigan.

With Mertz, Wisconsin was the obvious favorite to win the Big Ten West and a legitimate sleeper to go to the College Football Playoff. ESPN’s FPI gave Wisconsin an 84 percent chance of winning the Big Ten West.

Without Mertz, this might no longer be the case.

Wisconsin lost receiver Quintez Cephus and running back Jonathan Taylor off the 2019 team and might not have the same caliber of explosive athlete at those two positions. To take a step forward or avoid regression, the offense needs Mertz to play at a level above what Wisconsin QBs have traditionally done. Through one game, he looked capable of doing so.

QB Chase Wolf, Wisconsin’s third string QB (starter Jack Coan went down in the preseason with a foot injury), would fill in for Mertz if healthy. But he did not practice Monday amid reports that he also tested positive. The results of his confirmatory test are not known. Wolf is a redshirt sophomore who has only attempted one pass over the last two seasons. A former 247Sports Composite three-star recruit, Wolf comes from St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was the No. 39 ranked pro-style quarterback in the class of 2018.

If Wolf cannot go, junior Danny Vanden Boom would be the starter.

Wisconsin does have a dynamite defense and could withstand having to play multiple conference games with a third- or fourth-string QB. But it won’t be easy.

Before the Mertz news was made public, Wisconsin was an 11-point favorite at Nebraska. The betting lines are off the board as of this writing, but the line had already crashed to just over a field goal before the game was pulled late Monday night.

Based on that, the most likely record for Wisconsin in its three-game stretch of at Nebraska, against Purdue, and at Michigan was 2-1. Without Mertz (if he is indeed out for the Michigan game) and perhaps without Wolf, the most likely record falls to 1-2.

It’s certainly possible to win the Big Ten West at 6-2 with the right tiebreakers, but it’s a lot easier to do so at 7-1. Losing Mertz for two or three games does not doom Wisconsin’s chances of repeating as West champs, it just potentially reduces its margin for error.

Nebraska’s odds of winning the West are substantially increased.

The Wisconsin game projected to be the most difficult one left on the schedule for Nebraska, according to Vegas odds and publicly-available power ratings, narrowly edging out games against Penn State and at Iowa and Purdue.

If Nebraska can pull off a victory this weekend, it will have a substantially better chance of getting to 5-3. A 5-3 record in a COVID season could put the Cornhuskers in contention for the division, something not thought possible a week or two ago due to the difficult schedule Nebraska faces.

This also drastically increases Purdue’s chance of winning the Big Ten West.

Purdue was a team many circled as a riser in the preseason due to getting many players back from 2019 injuries and an extremely friendly schedule which does not include Ohio State, Penn State, or Michigan from the Big Ten East. And Purdue started off appropriately, beating Iowa without coach Jeff Brohm on the sidelines or stud wideout Rondale Moore on the field. 

The game vs. Wisconsin was the only contest in which Purdue projected to be an underdog of more than two scores.

Purdue will almost certainly still be an underdog next weekend in Madison, but if the Boilermakers can somehow pull this off, they would have a strong chance at a 6-2 finish and would hold a tiebreaker over Wisconsin.

If Mertz has to miss the Michigan game, it also strongly increases the chance that the Wolverines are undefeated when they face Ohio State at year’s end.

The Wolverines project as a multi-score favorite in all remaining games except for the games against Wisconsin and Penn State. Michigan is favored by almost four touchdowns against Michigan State this weekend and will be a similarly-sized favorite against Rutgers and Maryland if they play well.

It is hard to see Wisconsin beating Michigan without Mertz and potentially Wolf, if one or both QBs are indeed out.

This could be the first test for how the College Football Playoff committee handles results which were substantially influenced by players out with COVID.

Consider a scenario in which Wisconsin wins the Big Ten West at 5-3 and wins the Big Ten. If the losses came without Mertz, who was out with COVID, how should the committee treat it?

247Sports’ Chris Hummer considered scenarios like this over the summer and analyzed how the committee has treated losses substantially influenced by injured players who were later back healthy with the team. That is definitely worth a read and could be a preview of how messy things will get.

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