Wisconsin has an 8-0 record, best in the Big Ten, is ranked fourth in the national polls and is one of only five unbeaten teams remaining in the top-25. But when the first College Football Playoff rankings were released, the Badgers were all the way down in the No. 9 spot.
And the reason no one was really surprised or upset about Wisconsin’s initial position – below six one-loss teams and two Big Ten rivals – is the same reason that, going forward into the last third of the 2017 season, it has a great chance of being among the top four when the final rankings, the ones that matter, come out on Dec. 2.
The Badgers’ placement straightforwardly reflects their competition, which has been not good. Wisconsin is undefeated but has not faced a ranked team – and probably won’t for the entire regular season – and its opponents have a combined record of 25-29. The Badgers’ strength of schedule ranks 74th among all Football Bowl Subdivision programs and last in the Big Ten, according to the NCAA.
Sitting atop the Big Ten West, the Badgers look down upon a division that features just two teams with winning overall records and nobody else with more than three conference victories. Their best win, given BYU’s collapse, was against a 5-3 Northwestern squad.
Going into the year, the narrative around the Badgers was that their schedule looked weak, and it has been, though they’ve certainly taken care of their business, with a plus-177 point differential. The national perception is that Wisconsin hasn’t played anyone, and that reflects why the school had the largest fall from the AP and Coaches polls to the CFP Rankings, which seek to be more sophisticated and heavily value schedule strength.
The Badgers’ remaining schedule doesn’t get much harder; but that’s exactly why they have ultimately an easy path to the College Football Playoff.
Wisconsin’s remaining games are at Indiana (3-5 overall, 0-5 conference), home for Iowa (5-3, 2-3), home for Michigan (6-2, 3-2) and at Minnesota (4-4, 1-4). The road contests are against a team that sucks and one that is struggling; the home matchups are more difficult. Iowa is always a challenge and Michigan is the toughest test on the schedule, though the Badgers are 28-4 at Camp Randall Stadium since 2013. None of those four foes is ranked, and Wisconsin is 25-1 against unranked opponents under head coach Paul Chryst.
Assuming the Badgers win their last four regular-season games – an assumption Chryst would never allow, but we can – they could face highly regarded Ohio State (No. 6 in CFP rankings) or Penn State (No. 7) in the Big Ten championship game. Wisconsin has played in four of the six Big Ten Championship Games and won two of them, and has a clock-eating, ground-and-pound, defensively stout style that's hard to beat.
In the first three years of the College Football Playoff, the committee has not omitted an undefeated champion from a Power-5 conference. The Pac 12 and Big 12 are already assured of having a champ with at least one loss. If the Badgers defeat the winner of the powerful Big Ten East and go undefeated in 2017, they will be in. Heck, last year Washington made the playoff despite a 12-1 record on its own weak schedule.
Since the CFP’s inception, only five of the 12 teams in the initially released top four actually were in the national semifinals and not once have all of the first top four made it. Wisconsin starts its CFP quest at No. 9, on the outside looking in, but there are five more weeks to move up the rankings. If the Badgers keep winning, it’s their playoff spot to lose.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.