It didn’t happen until the next-to-last set of rankings, but the College Football Playoff selection committee finally moved the University of Wisconsin into the fourth and final playoff spot Tuesday.
That 11th-hour show of respect from the committee didn’t really register among the Badgers’ many doubters, though.
While the No. 4 ranking behind Clemson, Auburn and Oklahoma did set up a near-certain win-and-you’re-in scenario for UW when it plays Ohio State in the Big Ten Conference Championship Game tonight at Lucas Oil Stadium, it had minimal impact on the season-long narrative that the 12-0 record is the product of a soft schedule.
The committee fostered the talk about UW’s poor strength of schedule and, despite its climb to No. 4, continues to do so. UW is the only remaining undefeated team from a Power-Five conference, yet there are three teams still ranked ahead of it. One of those teams is Auburn, which despite having two losses leapfrogged UW in the standings after beating previous No. 1 Alabama last week. Somehow, the committee scrubbed those losses from Auburn’s record during its deliberations.
Adding fuel to hot takes was Paul Finebaum, the ESPN analyst and SEC mouthpiece. You have to consider the source since ESPN and the SEC are business partners in a network, but Finebaum said UW would have lost three or four games had it played Alabama’s schedule, conveniently ignoring the fact various computer rankings put Alabama’s strength of schedule as only marginally better than UW’s.
But perhaps the biggest putdown of the Badgers was the hottest debate all week over whether one-loss Alabama or two-loss Ohio State should claim the fourth playoff spot when the final rankings are released and the field is set. Of course, the discussion was based entirely on the premise Ohio State, ranked eighth in the CFP standings, would handle UW tonight.
The best part is the discussion ends tonight. If the Badgers beat the Buckeyes in what looks like a dead-even matchup of UW’s power versus Ohio State’s speed, the doubters will no longer be able to make a credible case that UW doesn’t belong. And if the Badgers lose, they’ll get a rousing chorus of I-told-you-sos and head to one of the other New Year’s Six bowls.
“I think it’s another great opportunity to prove that we are legit, that we are the team that we think we are,” tight end Troy Fumagalli said. “I think it’s another great opportunity with another great team.”
Publicly, the Badgers haven’t admitted the lack of respect bothers them. For the most part, they’ve stuck with the company line that it doesn’t matter to them what others think, they’re just going to go about their business like they always do.
UW’s methodical, week-to-week, ignore-the-outside-noise approach has worked to perfection so far. Of the Badgers’ 12 victories, only two were by less than 14 points and their closest game was an eight-point win over Purdue.
Don’t be fooled, though. The Badgers are extremely competitive and silencing their critics will be an unstated goal against the Buckeyes tonight.
“If you win this game, I don’t know how anyone can say your previous schedule is still a big deal,” tackle Michael Deiter said. “They’re ranked in the top 10. They’re a super-good team. Ton of talent. If you beat a team like that, I think that speaks to your team enough for anyone to believe in you. Whether they do or not is really not our concern, but I definitely think it should. If it doesn’t, so be it. It’s nothing we can worry about. But it definitely should because they’re a good team.”
That’s the real problem for UW tonight; the Buckeyes are loaded. Although both currently sit just outside the final four, Ohio State and Alabama are probably the most physically talented teams in the country.
The Buckeyes have been prone to meltdowns, though. They lost to Oklahoma early in the season when they scored just 16 points. Their other loss was at Iowa, when they inexplicably gave up 55 points (48 by the defense).
When they’re fully engaged, however, the Buckeyes are very good, especially on offense. Their fourth-ranked offense going head-to-head with the Badgers’ top-ranked defense should be one of the matchups of the year in college football.
The outcome likely will rest on UW’s ability to contain senior quarterback J.T. Barrett, whose running and passing accounted for 318 yards and three touchdowns in Ohio State’s 30-23 overtime victory over UW last season. The Badgers must make Barrett throw from the pocket. They also need to run the ball with freshman sensation Jonathan Taylor and keep the Buckeyes offense off the field, something they did reasonably well last season, when Corey Clement rushed for 164 yards and the Badgers totaled 450.
The biggest worry might be UW hasn’t faced many explosive, two-way offenses like Ohio State’s. In fact, six of its 12 games were against offenses currently ranked 100th or lower in the NCAA statistics. But UW’s defense has become increasingly dominant and will never be more ready than it is now to meet the challenge presented by Ohio State.
If the Badgers don’t get caught up in the importance of the game and continue to play the way they have all season, they should at least give themselves a chance.
“We can’t really control what anyone else is saying about us or anything like that,” linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “But I know we’re playing a very good team. All we care about is beating them and playing our best game against them. We can’t control anything else that happens. All we can do is focus on the goal at hand.”
UW’s record indicates it has been pretty good at that.
“I’m not too much worried about what people think,” cornerback Derrick Tindal said.
“The only opinions that matter to me are mine and my teammates’. As far as trying to be a statement game for us, I don’t look at it as that. I look at it as just another game. I mean, it’s a championship game. It’s much bigger. But every other game set us up for this and we didn’t change up anything then, so why would we change up anything now?”
Well, except for the perceptions of UW nationally. That is something the Badgers can change with a victory tonight.