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Barring Insanity, Wisconsin Is The Big Ten’s Last Playoff Hope

Now that Penn State and Ohio State each have two-losses, Wisconsin is the last bastion of Playoff hope for the Big Ten conference.

Last weekend was a big one for the Big Ten conference, and not in a good way.

Coming into the week, the conference had three teams with legitimate hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff: Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin.

Unfortunately for the conference, both the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions suffered devastating losses Saturday. Penn State traveled to East Lansing to take on Michigan State and lost on a last-second field goal after a three-and-a-half hour rain delay. Ohio State, coming off its impressive, come-from-behind win against Penn State the week before, headed to Iowa City and got absolutely throttled by the Hawkeyes, 55-24.

Now both teams possess what has been a death sentence to Playoff hopes since the Playoff’s inception three years ago: a second loss. Because of that, Wisconsin is left as the Big Ten’s final hope to get a team into the Playoff.

There have only been three College Football Playoffs, but never once has a two-loss team been invited. That doesn’t mean that a two-loss team will never make the Playoff in its current incarnation, but it doesn’t bode well for all the two-loss teams with hopes of somehow sneaking into the mix.

Realistically, it’s difficult to expect a two-loss team to receive an invitation to the Playoff when there are four undefeated or one-loss Power Five teams available to choose from, especially if they all are conference champions.

Here are the final CFP rankings each of the last three years:

1.Alabama (12-1)Clemson (13-0)Alabama (13-0)
2.Oregon (12-1)Alabama (12-1)Clemson (12-1)
3.Florida State (13-0)Michigan State (12-1)Ohio State (11-1)
4.Ohio State (12-1)Oklahoma (11-1)Washington (12-1)
5.Baylor (11-1)Iowa (12-1)Penn State (11-2)
6.TCU (11-1)Stanford (11-2)Michigan (10-2)
7.Mississippi State (10-2)Ohio State (11-1)Oklahoma (10-2)
8.Michigan State (10-2)Notre Dame (10-2)Wisconsin (10-3)

Only once, in 2015, do you see a two-loss team ranked ahead of a one-loss team, but even then it was the difference between sixth and seventh and neither team reached the Playoff.

Precedent isn’t everything, particularly in a relatively new system, but it is instructive. Last season, the Committee had its best opportunity yet to establish a new precedent and let a two-loss team in. But, despite being Big Ten champions and having beaten Ohio State head-to-head, the two-loss Penn State team finished fifth, while 11-1 Ohio St. took the third Playoff spot.

That means that for a two-loss team, like this year’s Penn State and Ohio State, to have a chance to make the Playoff, utter chaos needs to ensue. Of the nine undefeated or one-loss teams currently ranked inside the CFP top-10 — Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame, Clemson, Oklahoma, TCU, Miami, Wisconsin, and Washington — at least six of them need to lose one, if not two games before the end of the regular season.

College football gets crazy — that’s why we love it — and some of those teams listed above are likely to drop another game. But having six or more of them lose is probably too much to ask.

One additional thing to take into consideration is the other two-loss teams Penn State and Ohio State would hypothetically have to compete with for a spot even if they did win out and have chaos erupt around them. USC could be a two-loss Pac-12 champion. Auburn could be a two-loss SEC champion with a win against Alabama and two wins against Georgia (once in the regular season and once in the SEC title game). All those teams listed before, if they ended the season with two losses, would still most likely have more impressive resumes than the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions.

So, sorry Penn State and Ohio State. Barring a miracle, you will not be a part of the 2017 College Football Playoff.

Which brings us back to the Big Ten’s last chance. With the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions all but eliminated, Wisconsin is the conference’s last viable option to have a team in the Playoff. That fact should worry everyone at Big Ten headquarters.

The Badgers are definitely a good team — it’s impossible for a bad team to go undefeated through nine games in the FBS — but they lack the bona fides to inspire confidence as a potential Playoff pick.

Wisconsin boasts the sixth-best S&P+ in the nation at the moment, which is impressive, but the Badgers yet to face any sort of reputable opponent. Its three non-conference opponents were a mediocre Mountain West team, a good Conference USA team, and a terrible independent team. The combined record of its conference opponents is 23-31, and only one of the six is currently above .500.

The Badgers’ defense has been staunch; they are tied for fourth in scoring defense, sixth in defense S&P+, fourth in rushing defense, and fifth in total defense. Again, though, this has been against far-from-elite offenses. The Wisconsin offense, though, even against below-average competition, has been, at best, slightly above average. The Badgers rank 24th in scoring offense, 30th in offense S&P+, and 37th in total offense.

The passing attack has been particularly problematic. Wisconsin ranks 92nd in passing yards per game. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook is completing 64.4 percent of his passes for only 192.0 yards per game, 15 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. Jonathan Taylor (1,368 yards, 12 touchdowns, 7.2 yards per carry) and the Wisconsin rushing attack are strong, but with a passing attack this weak, it will be tough to get much done against any respectable defense because those teams will stack the box with eight or nine defenders and dare Hornibrook to beat them, which he more than likely will not.

The Badgers will get a couple of chances the next two weeks to add some respectable wins to their resume against Iowa and Michigan. Neither team is particularly strong — Michigan is on its third quarterback of the year and Iowa has three losses — but Iowa is currently ranked No. 20 and just crushed Ohio State, so the win would certainly be Wisconsin’s best win of the season.

If Wisconsin finishes 13-0 and the Big Ten champion, it should almost definitely be invited to the Playoff, regardless of the strength of schedule. But, if it slips up just once over the next four weeks, it could very well doom itself and its conference.

A one-loss Wisconsin team, with its lack of quality wins and weak strength of schedule to go along with a less-than-impressive offense, wouldn’t fair well when compared to other one-loss teams nationally.

Wisconsin is the Big Ten’s last hope, but it is skating on very thin ice. A few short weeks ago, the question was which Big Ten team would reach the Playoff. Now the question is, will it get one at all? I wouldn’t count on it.

Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

In what year did a Big Ten team not reach the College Football Playoff?
Created 11/6/17
  1. 2014
  2. 2015
  3. 2016
  4. The Big Ten has never missed the Playoff

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