Path To The Playoff: Wisconsin

With the right defense and the right schedule, Wisconsin has a chance to sneak into the College Football Playoffs for the first time

There was a time just over 25 years ago when Wisconsin athletics were a disaster. The basketball program hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in forever, and the football team was ranked among the worst in America. Ever since the arrival of Pat Richter as athletic director and the hiring of Barry Alvarez as the head football coach, everything started to turn around. Now, the school and the athletic department has become the model combination of consistency, academic requirements, and way above-average production.

The hoops team has been able to get over the hump with two straight Final Four appearances and three in the last 15, but the football team hasn’t been able to get all that close to a national title. The Rose Bowl appearances have been great, but now in the playoff era, Wisconsin football has to really and truly prove that it can be among the giants.

There might be a coaching change, and the offense might have lost a Heisman-caliber running back, but this is still one of the top teams in the country with a breezy enough schedule to carve out a possible Path to the Playoff.

Step One: Act as if

Even with all of the success, the football program has always had a bit of a hard ceiling to fight through in terms of facing the truly elite teams. There might have been several tremendous wins over the year, but the whole “recruit to a type” philosophy becomes a problem when facing teams with NFL speed, athleticism and talent. Wisconsin has sent more than its share of players to the pros, but it isn’t the five-star recruiting machine like Ohio State and several SEC teams are.

This year, with new head coach Paul Chryst taking over, the football team has to take on the attitude that it really is time to think about the playoff and the national title as actual, realistic goals. If the basketball team could beat an all-timer of a Kentucky squad, then maybe it just might be possible to think that big football-wise, too. And to start …

Step Two: Don’t get annihilated by Alabama

Alabama is a 10-point favorite over Wisconsin in tomorrow’s season-opener in AT&T Stadium in Arlington. The game doesn’t really matter all that much for the Badgers – they’ll get into the playoff if they run the table – but if they can somehow pull off the big upset and beat the Crimson Tide, all of a sudden, the playoff expectations go through the roof. If Bucky is good enough to beat Nick Saban, it’ll good enough to rip through the rest of the soft schedule. As long as the Badgers don’t get blown out 59-0 and as long as the loss isn’t too awful, everything will still be on the table. There just won’t be any margin for error.

Step Three: Clement had better be the real deal

Wisconsin is on an epic run of phenomenal college running backs, partly because of the system and partly because of the talent. Being the Badger tailback is one of the glamour positions in all of sports at this point, and Corey Clement is now the anointed one who gets to take his turn. Last year he ran for 949 yards and nine touchdowns and caught two scoring passes as the No. 2 man behind Melvin Gordon, and now he has massive shoes to fill. Gordon ran for 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns last season, taking over two years ago after Montee Ball ran for 1,830 yards and 22 scores. Under Chryst, James Conner ran for 1,765 yards and 26 scores at Pitt last year. It’s an impossibly high bar, but Clement needs to blow past the 1,500-yard mark and score more than 20 times. No pressure.

Step Four: Joel Stave’s game has to be as pretty as his hair

The Badger quarterback has had a long and interesting career. A former walk-on, he stepped in and was okay in 2012 before getting hurt, and in 2013 he was just good enough get by. After missing the first four games of last year trying to get over a case of the yips – to be polite about his nightmare trying to overcome a problem throwing the ball – he came out and threw three picks in an inexcusable loss to Northwestern and closed out the year with six interceptions in his last two games. He has the size, he has the experience, and he has the right mentality to deal with the quarterback job, but he doesn’t have a slew of great receiver weapons to work with. No one is asking him to be a first round draft pick, but he has to hit 60 percent of his throws and has to limit the interceptions to a bare minimum.

Step Five: Improve the punting game

When you run the ball, and you don’t have a passing game, field position is a big plus. The Badger defense should be terrific, and if the punting game can tilt the field, Wisconsin is going to dominate. Punter Drew Meyer wasn’t awful in terms of putting teams inside the 20, but he only averaged 37.4 yards per punt. The second-best punting game of the year came in the embarrassment to Ohio State, but overall, the Badgers have to start averaging more than 40 yards per boot.

Step Six: Turnover margin

A staple of the Bret Bielema era, Wisconsin owned turnover margin, going a +16 with Russell Wilson at the helm in 2011 and +14 in 2010. Under Gary Andersen, UW was +1 in 2013 but was a disaster late in the year (going -5 in the losses to Penn State and South Carolina) and was -9 last year (going -4 in the loss to Northwestern, -4 against Ohio State and -3 in the bowl win over Auburn). Run the ball, force turnovers, control the clock, don’t turn the ball over. That’s the Wisconsin formula.

Step Seven: Beat Nebraska

After the Alabama game, Wisconsin will be the favorite – likely a double-digit favorite – against everyone else the rest of the way except for a road trip to Minnesota and the big date at Nebraska. The Badgers probably can’t win the West if it doesn’t beat the Huskers, and if they lose to the Crimson Tide, they’re out of the playoff with a loss in Lincoln.

Is It Going To Happen?

It might be close. Wisconsin will likely lose to Bama but can run the table on the way to an 11-1 regular season and on to the Big Ten championship. Then it comes down to the puncher’s chance. Beat Ohio State or Michigan State in Indianapolis, and it’s on to the playoff. Anything less than that, like another loss, won’t make them one of the four best teams in the country.


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