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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014

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Lightning struck twice on the Wisconsin football team last Saturday when Ohio State's Devin Smith caught the game winning touchdown pass.
Lightning struck twice on the Wisconsin football team last Saturday when Ohio State's Devin Smith caught the game winning touchdown pass. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Badgers season, contrary to popular opinion, is not over

The beauty of college football is also the problem with college football.

If you have designs on the national championship, you can't have a bad day. You can't have a punt get blocked for a touchdown (or lead to one) and give up a Hail Mary.

You certainly can't have it happen twice in back-to-back games.

But if you are the Wisconsin Badgers that was exactly the fate you dealt yourself by losing in succession to Michigan State and Ohio State. While some are labeling Bret Bielema's team as a bunch of frauds, I think that is rooted more in frustration than reality.

A typical football game has about 150 plays. Each team runs an average of 65 plays on offense, 65 plays on defense, and 20 special teams' plays. In the Wisconsin – Michigan State game there were 158 individual plays; in the Wisconsin – Ohio State Game there were 160.

Four out of the total 318 plays in two games doomed the Badgers season. That's 0.013 percent of the total plays in those two contests. Take out the blocked punt and Hail Mary in each of the last two weeks and the Badgers are undefeated. Of course you cannot pick and choose which plays to eliminate, but to base an entire team's very existence on a 0.013 percent failure rate is nonsense.

The point of this exercise is not to excuse the glaring mistakes that plagued Bielema and Co. the last two weeks. My point is to try to quell the growing tides of fans that are of the mistaken opinion that that Badgers "stink."

The Badgers don't "stink." They have failed on some key plays, yes. They have had two straight disappointing outcomes, without question. Their failures in those critical times have doomed the lofty expectations of everyone inside the program, and devastated their fans and alumni around the country.

But they don't "stink."

Two consecutive losses notwithstanding, the Wisconsin Badgers football team is still one of the elite programs in the conference, if not the country. Do you mean to tell me that 0.013 percent of the plays that they have run over the last two games have doomed them from the status of "elite" to the status of "barely average?"

That's absurd.

That having been said, the unforgiving nature of college football in the FBS is just that: unforgiving. Clearly, there are lines that need to be drawn and Wisconsin falls outside of them by virtue of the heinous mistakes that have cost them those games.

But at least as far as the national championship was concerned, it was going to be an uphill battle anyway.

This weekend, one unbeaten will fall as No. 1 LSU travels to Tuscaloosa to play No. 2 Alabama. If LSU advances, they have to play Western Kentucky (4-4), at Mississippi (2-6), and Arkansas (7-1) before the SEC Championship Game (probably) against South Carolina (although the Gamecocks still have difficult games at Arkansas and at home against Clemson, they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Georgia in the SEC East).

If Alabama wins, the Crimson Tide would have to get through road games at Mississippi State 4-4), and Auburn (6-3), as well as their home finale against Georgia Southern (7-1 in the FCS) before reaching the SEC Championship.

Obviously all eyes in college football will be on Bryant-Denny Stadium this Saturday night because the winner of this game probably will be playing in the BCS Championship Game January 9 in New Orleans.

Considering that the national champion has come from the SEC in each of the last five years, it is safe to say that their conference champion is the odds-on favorite to be one of the teams selected when the final rankings are released Dec. 4.

As for the other participant in the national championship, Oklahoma State is undefeated with two very difficult games against Kansas State (7-1) and Oklahoma (7-1). Both of those games are in Stillwater, however, with road games at Texas Tech (5-3) and Iowa State (4-4).

Stanford is the other BCS unbeaten, but they were tested by USC last Saturday in a contest that went to triple overtime before the Cardinal prevailed. Quarterback Andrew Luck is a Heisman favorite, with Stanford averaging 49.5 points per game. At 8-0, their BCS hopes rest with their matchup against Oregon (7-1, 5-0 in conference) on Nov. 12. If Stanford can win that game, I doubt they will have any problems with Oregon State (2-6), Cal (4-4), Notre Dame (5-3) or Arizona State (probably) in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

I did not include undefeated Boise State simply based on their track record of being overlooked by the BCS in the final standings. Beating up on the likes of Toledo and Fresno State will do that to you.

In all reality, if Wisconsin were still undefeated, they would have to convince voters (and the all-knowing computer) that they were better than Stanford and Oklahoma State. For that, they would need to demonstrate that their non-conference schedule strength is better than that of either school, which isn't likely, considering that the only team in FBS that the Badgers that have beaten with a winning record is Northern Illinois.

I'm not saying that would be impossible, just daunting.

Nevertheless, trying to predict college football nowadays is like trying to predict when the housing market will rebound. You can consult all of the so-called experts all day long, but at the end of the day, it's still a crapshoot.

By losing to Michigan State and Ohio State, yes, the Badgers ruined their chance to the BCS Championship Game. They also face a long uphill climb for even a return to the Rose Bowl.

Then again, Oklahoma, the preseason No. 1, won't be making an appearance in the title game either by virtue of their loss to Texas Tech on Oct. 22. Preseason No. 3, Oregon, was probably knocked out of the National Championship picture in Week 1 at LSU. However, just by scheduling that game gave the Ducks brownie points with voters that are looking for something special when awarding a title shot to.

You would be hard pressed to find college football experts that don't respect either one of those programs, even as disappointed as their fans might be.

Because LSU beat Oregon, they are the No. 1 team currently in the country. If Alabama, the No. 2 preseason team wins Saturday night, they will take over that spot.

By losing to the Spartans and Buckeyes, the Badgers were not exposed as a fraud. They were exposed as being about as good as they are right now. They are a very good, yet flawed, team. But a fraud? Hardly.

Are last year's Super Bowl Champion Packers a fraud? They lost six times, including to the likes of Washington and Miami in successive weeks. Both games, like the Badgers losses to the Spartans and Buckeyes, could have had a different outcome if one single play had gone the other way.

Of course, the NFL is much more forgiving than college football is. In the NFL, as evidenced last season, you can be imperfect even six times and still win it all.

Sadly that will not be happening to the Badgers this season. In fact, it will be an uphill battle to even make it to the inaugural conference championship game Dec. 3. In order for that to happen, the Badgers have to win the rest of their games (Purdue, at Minnesota, at Illinois, and Penn State), Penn State has to lose to Nebraska, beat Ohio State, and of course lose to Wisconsin.

Impossible? Nope. Unlikely? Sure, but stranger things have happened.

The blocked punts and surrendered Hail Mary's are horrible, glaring mistakes that need to be corrected. However disappointed Badgers fans are right now, all is not lost. There is still football to be played; there are still Saturday's at Camp Randall to be enjoyed.

While frustrated fans and alumni will scream for heads to roll, consider Bret Bielema's overall 55-18 record. Consider that he was the one that convinced Russell Wilson to choose Madison and not Auburn, the defending national champion. Consider that after Barry Alvarez stepped down as coach the Badgers haven't missed a beat, and in many ways increased their own expectations to the point of intense frustration at a single loss.

Consider that as horrible as those gaffes were in the two losses, a different result in 0.013 percent of the plays in those two games would have Wisconsin still in the national championship hunt.

Losing is never a good thing. But the Badgers are still without question headed in the right direction. They still may be the best team in the Big Ten, albeit a flawed one in crunch time.

However, unlike in professional sports, with the specter of lockouts, player strikes, free agency, and fire sales, there will be next year.

And that is something to build on.

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