The Big Ten was left out of the College Football Playoff last season, but Wisconsin was one win away from essentially punching its ticket for the four-team playoff. A loss in the Big Ten Championship Game knocked Wisconsin from the ranks of the unbeaten at the worst possible time and sent the Badgers to the Orange Bowl instead of the Rose Bowl for the playoff. Two straight years after losing in the Big Ten title game, Wisconsin looks to finally capture the trophy for the first time under head coach Paul Chryst.
With a leading Heisman Trophy candidate at running back behind one of the top offensive lines in the Big Ten, can Wisconsin power its way to a conference title and a spot in the playoff, or will questions about the defense and a challenging road schedule block the Badgers once again?
Three Reasons Why Wisconsin Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2018
1. Most experienced starting offense in the Big Ten
No Big Ten team is going to return as many offensive starters as the Badgers this season. And for an offense that averaged 33.8 points and 415.0 yards per game last season, that is a terrific starting point. The Badgers have few concerns with the offense starting the season with starting experience at a few backup roles as well.
2. Jonathan Taylor’s sophomore surge?
Wisconsin seems to always have a strong running back to rely on. Last year it was Taylor (above, right) rushing for 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns as a freshman, and he will begin the upcoming season as one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy. Behind a strong offensive line, there is little reason to doubt Taylor will have another massive year piling up yardage for the Badgers.
3. Big Ten’s top-ranked defense
Other defenses in the Big Ten may have some more star power, but Wisconsin’s ability to play defense as a team stands on its own. The Badgers allowed just 262.1 yards per game last year to lead the conference while allowing a Big Ten-best 4.42 yards per play. Scoring also comes at a premium against Wisconsin, who allowed just 13.9 points per game last season. The most points allowed came in the Big Ten Championship Game when Ohio State scored 27 points. Wisconsin kept three opponents out of the end zone last fall as well. With few starters returning, Wisconsin will have to count on new faces to keep that trend going.
Three Reasons Why Wisconsin Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2018
1. The road schedule is brutal
The biggest challenge Wisconsin will face is a schedule that includes trips to Big Ten East programs Michigan and Penn State in addition to having to play division threats Iowa and Northwestern on the road. Those road games come every other week from late September into early November, which will not be an easy stretch for Wisconsin to escape unscathed. One loss in any of those games may not be the fatal blow to Wisconsin's playoff chances, but two losses would essentially be an automatic disqualifier (and this doesn't even account for a possible matchup against Ohio State in a Big Ten Championship Game rematch).
2. Massive turnover on the defense
Sure, the defense at Wisconsin tends to be a strength, as noted earlier. However, this year's team has just three returning starters and that leads to some concerns about consistency. In the long run, Wisconsin may prove to have a sound defensive mindset and philosophy to be able to remain one of the Big Ten's best, but the Badgers will go on the road for some difficult games against a variety of offenses that could pose problems if the Wisconsin defense has some issues it cannot address in time.
3. Alex Hornibrook's mistakes
Wisconsin's offense is returning a ton of starters, and that includes quarterback Alex Hornibrook. While Hornibrook does bring plenty of positives to the offense, it is not possible to overlook his interception total from last fall. Hornibrook was picked off 15 times with only Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee tossing more among Big Ten passers. Hornibrook was intercepted twice in the Big Ten Championship Game and had a stretch of eight games with at least one interception during the regular season. He sure seemed to fix his interception problem in the Orange Bowl against Miami, but time will tell if he has put that problem behind him for good.
Wisconsin has come close to making a playoff case in recent seasons, but without a win in a Big Ten Championship Game the last two years, the Badgers have simply not had enough to stand up on to stay on the playoff radar. The 2018 season looks to be another very challenging year for Wisconsin to crack the playoff for the first time in program history. Though the Badgers are being given strong odds to win the Big Ten (behind Ohio State), the chances Wisconsin manages to get through this season without two losses do not feel particularly great. Considering no Big Ten champion with two losses has been selected for the playoff, it looks as though Wisconsin has to go no worse than 12-1 with the Big Ten championship on its resume.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 9
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 10-3 (7-2 Big Ten)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 10
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 10
-- Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. 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.