Wisconsin could be Big Ten's only playoff hope
The Big Ten suddenly has a whole lot more riding on No. 6 Wisconsin.
As skeptics claim the unbeaten Badgers padded their record with a weak schedule and the College Football Playoff selection committee appears to be equally unimpressed, Wisconsin finds itself on a mission.
The league's playoff spot might depend on it.
With two of the conference's top teams losing for a second time Saturday, Wisconsin, which dropped two spots in The Associated Press college football poll despite a win, becomes the Big Ten's best hope of making college football's Final Four.
“This whole week we wanted to send our message and say that we're a really good team and people should respect us,” fullback Alec Ingold said after scoring three touchdowns in the Badgers' 45-17 win at Indiana. “At halftime, we were kind of looking around at each other like, ‘This is our chance.' We didn't start fast but we felt like we could definitely finish the way we wanted.”
The Badgers can clinch the Big Ten West and a trip to the conference title game with a victory against No. 25 Iowa in Madison, Wis., next Saturday.
They left nothing to chance against the Hoosiers, rallying from a 10-0 first-half deficit with 24 consecutive points before sealing the win by scoring the last 21.
It was good enough to get a win on the road — something Ohio State and Penn State, the expected national contenders, failed to do.
When the Buckeyes went down 55-24 at Iowa and the Nittany Lions fell 27-24 at Michigan State, Wisconsin (9-0, 6-0, CFP No. 9) became the last Big Ten team with fewer than two losses. Committee members have never put a two-loss team in the playoff.
The bizarre twists have also made the East Division a jumbled mess.
No. 13 Michigan State and No. 11 Ohio State head into next weekend's showdown in Columbus tied for the division lead at 5-1.
No. 16 Penn State and No. 21 Michigan are a game behind at 4-2. All are 7-2. The Nittany Lions are reeling after back-to-back losses to the Buckeyes and Spartans while the Wolverines' losses came to their in-state rival and Penn State.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany declined an interview request to talk about the Big Ten's postseason prospects Saturday night.
The big question is whether Wisconsin belongs in the championship conversation after playing no ranked teams and facing only two teams that currently have winning records.
“We can't really control that,” quarterback Alex Hornibrook said. “We just have to control what we've got to control. It's each game. It's this game, and we're doing a good job so far.”
The Badgers' 10-game winning streak is tied with Georgia for the second longest in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Their 12 consecutive conference wins are a school record. They are one of five unbeaten FBS teams.
The defense is No. 5 nationally in points allowed, yards allowed, yards rushing allowed and sacks. It's No. 1 in pass efficiency allowed and defensive red-zone TD percentage.
Wisconsin has the Big Ten's top runner, Jonathan Taylor, and a veteran quarterback who showed Indiana he can make enough big plays to keep defenses honest.
While next weekend's game against the Hawkeyes looks much more intriguing now, Wisconsin may only get one or two more chances to really impress the selection committee. They host Michigan on Nov. 18 and then would likely get a ranked opponent in the Dec. 2 league championship game in Indianapolis. In between, there's a trip to Minnesota.
The Big Ten's other problem may be filling all 11 bowl spots. Right now, seven teams are bowl eligible and five are sitting at 4-5 with three games left and Indiana (3-6, 0-6) needs to win its final three to reach the postseason.
That won't help Wisconsin make its case either.
Winning out would. But if the Badgers have even the slightest stumble, the Big Ten could be shut out of the playoff for the first time.
“Everything will work itself out,” Wisconsin safety Joe Ferguson said. “You can talk about the rankings or whatever. But I liked what (Alabama coach) Nick Saban said, they don't matter till the end really. We've just got to do our thing, do what we can control and hopefully just keep winning.”