Where did it all go so wrong?
Before the season began, every Wisconsin fan had three games highlighted on their calendar. at Michigan, at Penn State, and the Big 10 Championship in Indianapolis. Win one of the former two alongside the Big 10 title game and the Badgers would be heading to the first College Football Playoff in program history. And, with the release of the preseason AP Poll, that looked a distinct possibility. In the eyes of the experts, only Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia were better football teams on paper than our Wisconsin Badgers.
Unfortunately, football isn’t played on paper, and it’s become very clear that Wisconsin was never a legitimate contender for the College Football Playoff. The BYU loss left the Badgers with no margin for error, and any dreams the Badgers had of finishing top-4 were dashed Saturday Night in the Big House, where Wisconsin was humiliated by a score of 38-13. Alex Hornibrook finished with just 25 yards before garbage time, and failed to complete a pass in either the second or third quarter.
The vaunted Badgers O-line, subject to a puff piece in Sports Illustrated in the preseason, failed to adequately protect Hornibrook for the majority of the game. The Michigan defensive line, sans likely top-10 pick Rashan Gary, had no problem making Hornibrook feel uncomfortable in the pocket. The Badgers signal-caller responded to this adversity by throwing two embarrassing interceptions, one of which was taken back for a pick six.
The defense wasn’t much better, and the worrying signs that were present against BYU and Iowa, inability to stop the run and failure to rush the passer, were on full display on Saturday night. Michigan RB Karan Higdon gashed the Wisconsin defense for over 100 yards, and Dylan McCaffery took a 44 yard read option the house. That run was the nail in the coffin for the Badgers on a night where everything seemed go wrong.
There’s no doubt about it. The Badgers’ chance at a college football playoff is done and buried. But, with a win at Northwestern in two weeks time, it’s extremely likely Wisconsin will be crowned Big 10 West Champion for the third time in a row. There, should they make it, the Badgers will have a chance to avenge their painful loss at Michigan or their loss to Ohio State in last year’s Big 10 Championship. The Badgers will also get another crack at Penn State, who defeated Wisconsin 38-31 in the 2016 Big 10 Championship.
The results of those three games: at Northwestern, at Penn State, and the Big 10 championship game (should the Badgers qualify), will determine just where and when Wisconsin go bowling this year. Should the Badgers win out, they’ll almost be guaranteed a spot in one of the New Year’s Six Bowls: the Fiesta Bowl, the Peach Bowl, or, of course, the Rose Bowl. Much more likely, however, is a spot in the Gator, Redbox, or Pinstripe Bowls, each which grant a spot to the Big 10 teams placed between 5th and 7th in the overall standings.
Should the Badgers finish behind Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State, a probability should Wisconsin come up short in Happy Valley, they’ll be relegated to a bowl of considerably less status. Stewart Mandel of The Athletic has Wisconsin playing South Carolina in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville. Mitch Sherman of ESPN has Wisconsin playing Tennessee in that same bowl. While each would be intriguing matchups, a bowl of that status was not what Badger fans were expecting entering the season. Should the team win out, a task that looks nearly impossible should the offense not improve from their putrid display in the Big House, Wisconsin will find themselves in a New Year’s Six Bowl for the third consecutive year. If not, the Gator Bowl, or an alternative of similar prestige, is looking like a distinct possibility.