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How well does Wisconsin actually perform against more talented teams?

Let’s dig deeper into Wisconsin’s inability to beat more talented teams.

Wisconsin v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Wisconsin got smoked by Michigan in a 25-point loss. It could have been a lot worse, too, if the Wolverines had finished their drives with touchdowns. The Badgers gained just 283 yards compared to Michigan’s 444. And Wisconsin’s average starting field position was 10 yards worse than Michigan’s.

This inspired a lot of discussion about how Wisconsin cannot win the big game or games against more talented teams.

Now, to be clear, I am one of the folks at the forefront of the “teams who recruit like Wisconsin cannot win the national title” message.

And I agree that Wisconsin should not be taken seriously as a national title contender. And that their record is often, but not always, built on a cakewalk of a schedule resulting from their placement in the Big Ten West.

But records can be deceiving.

They’re binary. It’s either win or lose. That’s not necessarily reflective of how games are played. So I wanted to look at those games in which UW went 1-8 from a deeper perspective.

To do so, I turned to Bill Connelly’s Post-Game Win Expectancy stat.

Based on the key stats from this game — success rate, big plays, field position components, turnovers, etc. — you could have expected to win it X percent of the time. Luck and randomness play a major role in the game of football, and this is an attempt to look at just how random a given outcome may have been.

Note: This measure has nothing to do with pre-game projections or opponent adjustments, only the postgame stats from a specific game.

I use this metric a lot in my weekly SB Nation gambling column, which is a consistent winner. It’s a great stat for filtering out the noise of football.

Against Michigan, Wisconsin had just a 14 percent win expectancy. In this case, the score matches up with the game’s final score.

But what about Wisconsin prior games against teams with a 50-plus percent Blue-Chip Ratio?

I found nine other regular season or championship games from 2013 to present. (For reference, Wisconsin’s BCR is currently 10 percent, which isn’t far from its typical number.)

  • In 2017, Wisconsin beat Michigan 24-10, with a post-game win expectancy of 72 percent. So that fits.
  • And it lost close against Ohio State, 27-21, albeit in a game that wasn’t actually close for most of the game, as indicated by just an 8 percent PWE. However, the Badgers had a chance to win at the end.
  • In 2016, Wisconsin beat LSU close, 16-14, in a game in which it dominated, as evidenced by its 84 percent PWE.
  • It also had a close loss to Michigan, 14-7, which actually wasn’t close at all, with just a 2 percent PWE!
  • Its 2016 loss to Ohio State, 30-27, was basically a coin flip, as evidenced by a 48 percent PWE.
  • In 2015, Wisconsin lost 35-17 to Alabama, with a PWE of 0. It could have been worse.
  • In 2014, the Badgers lost to LSU 28-24, with a PWE of 28 percent.
  • And they also lost to Ohio State 59-0 with, unsurprisingly, a PWE of 0.
  • And in 2013, they lost to the Buckeyes 31-24, with a PWE of 49 percent.

There were also two bowls against teams fitting the BCR.

I don’t think bowls are meaningless, but I do believe they are less meaningful than regular season games, due to sometimes stark differences in motivation. Bartoo, author of the tweet which inspired this post, never includes bowl games in his analysis.

  • In 2014, Wisconsin won the Outback Bowl over Auburn, 34-31 in overtime. That game featured a 45 percent PWE.
  • And in 2015, they beat a USC team dealing with sanctions 23-21 in the Rose Bowl. This contest featured a 61 percent PWE.

To the point of motivation, In 2014, Auburn was coming off a National Championship loss. Playing Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl was a major disappointment, and indeed the Tigers lost their last four FBS games of the year, by an average of more than double digits.

Wisconsin vs. Blue-Chip Ratio teams in regular season & championships

YR Opponent Score Margin PWE
YR Opponent Score Margin PWE
2018 Michigan -25 14%
2017 Michigan 14 72%
2017 Ohio State -6 8%
2016 LSU 2 84%
2016 Michigan -7 2%
2016 OSU -3 48%
2015 Alabama -18 0%
2014 LSU -4 28%
2014 Ohio State -59 0%
2013 Ohio State -7 49%

Does Wisconsin’s record match its play when it is significantly out-talented?

Wisconsin went 2-8 in these games. The data suggests that it should have been blown out one more time, but also that it probably should have won an extra game, because the Badgers were 0-2 in games with a PWE between 40 and 60 percent.

Wisconsin’s average PWE in those 10 games was 31 percent. The median was 21 percent.

If bowls are included, Wisconsin’s record is 4-8, with a PWE of 35 percent.

Whether you choose to include the bowl games is up to you. Either way, we are dealing with very small sample sizes.

Without more talent, Wisconsin should not be considered a title contender.

This isn’t surprising. What Wisconsin does against the best of the best is admirable given its recruiting level. But it’s not enough.

To its credit, Wisconsin’s coming 2019 recruiting class looks to be a significant upgrade on normal standards.

And we’ve seen Wisconsin have great seasons against legitimately good schedules, like 2011 with transfer QB Russell Wilson. Perhaps if the Badgers can upgrade their recruiting, and get a transcendent QB, they could be the team to win a title without an elite BCR.