When it comes to ranking the College Football Playoff contenders in the Big Ten, it seems a pair of teams from the East Division dominates the competition. But do not forget about the top team in the West, the Wisconsin Badgers.
Far from sexy, Wisconsin is built to win a lot of games in 2017, and that should allow the Badgers to hang around in the conversation as the season plays out. The Badgers may need a couple of breaks to go their way this season in order to crack the four-team field at the end, but Wisconsin has everything in place to make a serious run out of the Big Ten.
Three Reasons Wisconsin Will Reach the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. All of those returning starters
A year after playing for the Big Ten championship, Wisconsin is returning one of the most experienced rosters (17 returning starters) in the Big Ten this fall. Wisconsin only has a small handful of starters to replace this season, which should mean Wisconsin has few growing pains and transitions to work through.
2. Don’t sleep on Wisconsin’s defense
Wisconsin routinely has fielded one of the more dependable defensive units the Big Ten has to offer. This season, the Badgers should once again be stingy on defense. With Jack Cichy at linebacker and Chikwe Obasih at defensive end, the Badgers have some playmakers that will be tough to elude. And finishing a drive against this defense will not be easy for anyone this season.
3. The schedule
Wisconsin benefits from not having to play either Ohio State or Penn State in the regular season, meaning the only time the Badgers might cross paths with the Buckeyes or Nittany Lions would be in the Big Ten Championship Game. Other than a road game at Nebraska, the Badgers get some key games at home (Northwestern, Iowa, Michigan)
Three Reasons Wisconsin Won’t Make the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Not getting a big play through the air
Wisconsin’s bread and butter is running the football, but at some point the Badgers will need to come up with a big play through the air. How much should you trust sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook to deliver in that precise moment? Hornibrook had his share of ups and downs last season, and there is a reason to be concerned about how consistent he will be in a pivotal spot.
2. Finishing drives
If there is one area of concern for Wisconsin’s offense, it may be the inability to successfully finish enough drives. Wisconsin ranked 84th in the nation in finishing drives last season, and that can come back to haunt a team in a big game along the way.
3. Ohio State or Penn State still a major hurdle
As good as Wisconsin may end up being in 2017, the odds are still likely to be in favor of either Ohio State or Penn State in any Big Ten Championship Game scenario. The Buckeyes are already being projected to be the team to beat in the conference with another loaded roster, and Wisconsin knows all too well how dangerous Penn State’s offense can be even for a good defense like the one found in Madison.
Wisconsin falls in the category of being a wild card contender for the College Football Playoff. The Badgers must win the Big Ten in order to be in the conversation at the end of the season, and avoiding a slip up along the way may be necessary. Wisconsin is arguably the third-best team in the Big Ten, so the Badgers are far from the obvious pick to make the College Football Playoff out of the Big Ten.
The only three games Wisconsin lost last season came against teams from the Big Ten East – Ohio State and Michigan in the regular season, Penn State in the Big Ten title game. The Badgers should once again manage to get through the Big Ten West as the top team, but a road game at Nebraska could prove to be tricky. The Badgers won a game against the Cornhuskers in overtime last season in Madison. But outside of Nebraska, Wisconsin should likely have the upper hand against the rest of the division, including Minnesota and Purdue and their respective new head coaches.
Wisconsin will manage to stay on the radar for the College Football Playoff, but will ultimately have to settle for filling out the Big Ten’s New Year’s Day bowl slot instead.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 12
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 10-3 (7-2 Big Ten)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 10.5
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.