MADISON, Wis. – Top ten ranked teams seem to be on Wisconsin’s side as of late. No. 2 Clemson, No. 5 Washington, No. 8 Washington State and No. 10 Auburn all fell this past week, recording what could be playoff-crushing losses for the lot. What accompanies this unprecedented demise is a gift of a rankings leap for the Badgers. You know when you’re waiting in line for what feels like forever, and the group ahead of you decides to bail at the last minute, and you get to soak in those blissful five or six steps? That is what this is like for Wisconsin.
Wisconsin was simultaneously blessed and cursed with their strength of schedule this season. Aside from Nebraska and Michigan, it didn’t feel like there were any teams that would realistically derail Wisconsin’s title hopeful season. While The Big Ten is a premier football conference, the premier programs seemed more or less left off of Wisconsin’s schedule. There would be no regular season matchup versus the mighty Nittany Lions, Spartans or Buckeyes. While Wisconsin was by no means going to prepare less for teams without a winning pedigree, it was apparent that this season appeared easier than those of the past. Say all you want about not underestimating teams, but an out-of-conference schedule that yields no ranked opponents, and a Big Ten schedule that yields one can be viewed with a certain level of confidence.
However, this is a textbook double edged sword, considering wins from a top ten team over unranked opponents does little to draw attention to said team’s play. As such, losses from teams ranked above will do loads to push Wisconsin into striking distance, and that’s precisely what’s happened.
Following a defense-centric win over Purdue Saturday, Wisconsin leapt from a No. 7 ranking to No. 5, just one place shy of that lucrative top four position, guaranteeing a College Football Playoff birth by season’s end. Ranked in the top four spots are Alabama, Penn State, Georgia and TCU respectively. Such football programs are known nationally as powerhouses, teams to be reckoned with coming from punishing conferences. However, the latter half of such an claim plays into Wisconsin’s hand beautifully.
Barring a colossal Alabama collapse, the playoff perennial is almost poised this early to claim the first playoff spot. The remaining three teams, however, face a gauntlet of opponents to finish out the regular season. Georgia, in the notorious SEC, must face No. 21 Auburn in Tiger country, a game that will be sure to test Georgia’s winning identity. TCU, a member of the testy Big XII, must travel to Oklahoma and take on Heisman frontrunner Baker Mayfield and the vicious Sooners. Perhaps most favorable, Penn State is tasked with defeating No. 19 Michigan at home, as well as No. 6 Ohio State and No. 19 Michigan State on the road all in a row. If there has ever been the ultimate test of Penn State’s title potential, that will be it.
In simplistic terms, Wisconsin’s remaining schedule cannot hold a candle to the challenges that await the teams above of them. Should Wisconsin win out – all eyes will be on that Michigan game – their chances of advancing to their first ever College Football Playoff seem strong. Any competent football fan can extrapolate that Wisconsin’s remaining schedule – given the dominant level they’ve played at thus far – will be an advantage moving forward, and one that higher teams cannot relate to.
Come December, don’t be surprised if Wisconsin has the most obvious case of deja vu known to man, just hope that the outcome is not repeated.
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