College Football Playoff rankings: Big Ten’s big hope, Wisconsin, on outside looking in
College Football Playoff rankings: Big Ten’s big hope, Wisconsin, on outside looking in:-In the span of one hour on Saturday, the Big Ten Conference went from holding multiple avenues to the College Football Playoff to just one. College football’s championship push can be cruel to single teams, but rarely has an individual weekend caused so much havoc for one conference in particular.
First fell Ohio State, which saw its hopes of another Playoff berth disintegrate under Iowa’s 55-point barrage — the worst loss of Urban Meyer’s illustrious coaching career and the Buckeyes’ most lopsided in-conference defeat since a 63-14 loss to Penn State in 1994. Penn State’s already slim path to a national semifinal was erased by Michigan State’s last-second win, the Nittany Lions’ second loss.
Ohio State is done, as is Penn State. Michigan already was eliminated from the Playoff chase. The second round of Playoff rankings, released Tuesday evening, reflected this fact: OSU fell seven spots to 13th and Penn State seven spots to 14th, while the Spartans, who can win the East Division and conference title but are not a valid contender for a top-four finish, came in at 12th.
It’s no coincidence that the Southeastern Conference’s recent slide — with the exceptions of Alabama, college football’s gold standard, and Georgia, a new national player — was joined by the Big Ten’s rise in national reputation. Once an annual punchline come postseason play, the league has staked claim to standing alongside the SEC as the best conference in the Football Bowl Subdivision, if not ahead of the pack.
One nightmarish Saturday shouldn’t change that fact: Big Ten play in general is as good as its been in years. In a more immediate sense, however, the new Playoff rankings show the Big Ten to be one of college football’s great disappointments, as a conference that touted several legitimate Playoff contenders but now must pins its hopes on one team in specific.
That team is unbeaten Wisconsin, which rose to No. 8 in this week’s poll after a sluggish win against Indiana. The Badgers aren’t perfect, whether in performance or résumé; this is a team with flaws on the field and off. But they represent the only chance the Big Ten holds to claim a semifinal berth for the fourth time in as many years.
Wisconsin’s biggest issue doubles as its greatest asset: a schedule that raises eyebrows for its lack of impressive wins also is to thank for the Badgers’ unblemished record. To date, Wisconsin owns one victory against a Power Five opponent with a winning record, No. 25 Northwestern.
“It’s a concern of the committee as we look to rank the very best teams in the country,” said Playoff selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt. “When the margins of separation are as razor-thin as they are, strength of schedule factors into these conversations.”
None of the Badgers’ past four Big Ten wins have come against an opponent with greater than four wins. Beyond the Wildcats, just one win has come against a team with a winning record — Wisconsin topped Florida Atlantic, the potential champions in Conference USA and one of the surging teams from the Group of Five, in September.
Now compare that résumé with that of another unbeaten, No. 18 Central Florida. Both teams played Maryland, and both won handily — the Badgers by 25 points and the Knights by 28 points. But UCF can tout four wins against opponents with a winning record: Florida International, Navy, SMU and, most of all, No. 22 Memphis.
“Their strength of schedule is going to continue to be a challenge in positioning them higher,” Hocutt said of UCF.
Yet it’s easy to make the case that in terms of overall strength of schedule, UCF leads Wisconsin. That should change. The Badgers face No. 20 Iowa on Saturday, and then Michigan a week later. Most of all, Wisconsin will face one of Ohio State or Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game. By the end of the regular season, the Badgers could have multiple wins against teams ranked in the Playoff rankings.
“Every team in our top 25, as well as every team on the cusp of being ranked, has the opportunity either to strengthen or weaken their résumé in the weeks ahead,” Hocutt said. “With that being said, it’s hard to predict — it’s impossible to predict — what’s going to happen in the coming weeks.”
Or maybe not. A loss to Wisconsin would be Iowa’s fourth on the year, meaning the Hawkeyes might not end the regular season with a national ranking. Likewise with Michigan, which could enter the postseason with three or four losses. Beating Minnesota will do nothing for the Badgers. And here’s another nightmare scenario for the Big Ten to consider: Ohio State beats the Spartans this Saturday but loses to Michigan on the final Saturday of November, meaning Wisconsin’s opponent in the conference title game will have at least three losses.
As if things couldn’t get worse for the Big Ten. Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez, formerly a member of the selection committee, already has laid the groundwork for including an unbeaten Power Five team in the top four — even if, as in the Badgers’ case, the overall résumé trails in comparison to fellow Playoff contenders.
“I think that would be very difficult to do,” Alvarez told ESPN. “There’s no part of me that says if you go undefeated as a Power Five and win your conference championship, and you’re not going to be in the final four? I don’t see that. That would shock me.”
Don’t be shocked. Instead, be ready for Wisconsin to be a new litmus test as the Playoff enters its fourth year of existence. It was built to represent the entire FBS, or at least the Power Five conferences, and to “select the best teams,” per the selection committee’s protocol. Records obviously come into play, as do conference championships. But in the case of Wisconsin, would they be enough?