The undefeated Wisconsin Badgers are one of the most polarizing teams in all of college football. In a recent editorial discussion, my SB Nation colleagues and I were debating whether the Badgers, if they finished the season undefeated, should be a lock for the College Football Playoff. My initial reaction was that they should not. Now, I’m not so sure.
Wisconsin has some good players. It has also played a cakewalk of a schedule.
If the Playoff started today, Wisconsin would not deserve to be in. Per ESPN’s metrics, it has played the No. 73 schedule in the nation. The only ranked team the Badgers have played is current Playoff No. 25 Northwestern. Seven of the nine teams on Wisconsin’s schedule to date do not have a winning record. The Badgers’ best win is either Northwestern (by 11 in Madison), or an FAU worried about a hurricane bearing down on their homes (by 17, also in Madison).
"They had the lowest strength of schedule," committee chair Kirby Hocutt said Tuesday. "We do not look at one specific strength of schedule metric. We look at a number of strength of schedule metrics, but consistently over the course of all of those metrics we looked at, Wisconsin had the lowest strength of schedule among the 25 teams ranked this week."
A lack of marquee wins. A lack of decent opponents on the schedule. And a lack of notoriety are the main reasons why Wisconsin is No. 8 in the latest Playoff rankings.
But the Playoff doesn’t begin today. If Wisconsin finishes undefeated, it should be in.
The Badgers still have to play Iowa, which just throttled Ohio State and now ranks No. 20. They still must play Michigan, which might be getting its act together with a quickness after the QB change to Brandon Peters. And they would play either Ohio State or Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game.
It is almost certain that the three toughest games on Wisconsin’s schedule are still to be played. If Wisconsin beats ranked versions of Iowa, Michigan, and either Ohio State or Michigan State, its schedule metrics, which track fairly well with the committee’s record of decision-making, are going to skyrocket.
So no, Wisconsin does not deserve much credit for what it’s done to date. Going 9-0 against the No. 73 schedule is not that tough. Wisconsin’s resume to date is not much better than that of fellow undefeated UCF, which is not being seriously considered.
But if that 9-0 becomes some supporting evidence to the main exhibits of wins over Iowa, Michigan, and the Big Ten East champ, then the Badgers would probably be worthy.
The latter is especially true considering only one of the other Power 5 conferences, the SEC, has a likely shot at an undefeated conference champion (the ACC could, but Miami would need to pull two upsets along the way, against Notre Dame and Clemson). If this was a year in which multiple undefeated champions were likely, Wisconsin might be in trouble.
There are some other factors to consider, too.
Conference champ: Being a conference champion will weigh in the Badgers’ favor, if the other team being considered is the SEC runner-up, for example. This is an official consideration of the committee.
Undefeated: While the committee is tasked with selecting the four best teams, in practice, it does not act like it is drafting a power poll. The former college coaches on the committee will surely remark about how difficult it truly is to go undefeated, regardless of schedule. Getting a team up to play every week, even against an iffy schedule, can be tougher than getting it to play at an elite level a bunch of times while laying multiple eggs (hello, Ohio State).
No 12-1 Power 5 champ has ever missed the Playoff, let alone a 13-0 Power 5 champ.
Scheduling intent? It is often said that teams do not control their schedules. Within a conference, that is true. But it is not true for non-conference scheduling. And Wisconsin’s non-conference schedule this season is atrocious. Utah State is 5-5. BYU is having its worst season in many decades.
Former member Barry Alvarez, who happens to be Wisconsin’s AD, once argued the committee should consider whether a team tried to schedule tough. At least one other member publicly argued against the idea. It’s certainly not an official factor, but the committee often seems to fly by the seat of its pants and make things up as it goes.
Considering that the committee consists of several athletic directors who are tasked with making schedules for their own programs, Wisconsin could get the benefit of the doubt from some of them.
Consider that from 2011-15, the Utah State Aggies went a strong 43-24. BYU is an even better case. The Cougars have made 12 straight bowls, with an average record of 9-4. The Cougars have been a consistently excellent non-conference opponent. But this season, BYU is 2-8 and one of the worst teams in all of college football. Wisconsin could not have reasonably forecasted that two opponents who typically go 9-4 or 8-5 sit at 5-5 and 2-8, respectively.
Injuries: The committee has also said that it considers whether a team’s play was impacted by key injuries. The obvious 2017 angle is that of Clemson losing to Syracuse without a healthy QB in Kelly Bryant. But Wisconsin is now quite banged up. If the Badgers squeak by their final four opponents, but are likely to get some key players more healthy by January, the committee could consider it.
Precedent: It’s unlikely that the committee wants to set a precedent of leaving off an undefeated Power 5 conference champion.
Additionally, what would the hypothetical field without a 13-0 Wisconsin even even look like? Could it be Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, and one of Notre Dame or Georgia, the latter which did not go undefeated and/or did not win its conference? That won’t keep the member leagues happy.