Alex Hornibrook, Troy Fumagalli - Wisconsin vs. Illinois

Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook throws a pass to tight end Troy Fumagalli in the first quarter of the Badgers' 24-10 victory Saturday over the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill.

M.P. KING, STATE JOURNAL

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The first College Football Playoff rankings of the season will be released Tuesday and one of the safer predictions concerning the selection committee's output is this: University of Wisconsin fans aren't going to be happy.

Though the Badgers are ranked fifth in both top-25 polls and raised their record to 8-0 with a 24-10 victory over Illinois Saturday at Memorial Stadium, chances are their résumé will be devalued by the committee and it will be reflected in their ranking.

National critics have already been roasting UW for its easy schedule, which is fair. Except, of course, that several other top teams have been given free passes despite playing equally flimsy slates. Combine the Badgers' weak schedule with their series of underwhelming performances — like the one over Illinois  and the committee will have ample cause to drop them a few spots in the initial poll and send UW fans into a tizzy.

Indeed, the Badgers may be undefeated, but they are also unloved. UW fans can spare the outrage, though, because their team has made a poor case for itself so far. In failing to pile up dominant victories over the many lightweights on its schedule, UW has looked like the fifth-ranked team in the nation only in spurts.

With one final chance to score a first-round knockout to impress the committee Saturday, UW struggled to put down an Illinois team that is 2-12 in Big Ten Conference play the last two seasons, including eight losses in a row. As their offense continued to sputter, the Badgers gave the committee more ammunition to move other teams, including once-beatens Ohio State, Clemson, Notre Dame, Penn State at Oklahoma, ahead of them in the rankings.

If the Badgers are worried about their place in the playoff picture, however, it didn't show afterward. They said, rightly so, that everyone should wait until the final rankings are released in December.

"It doesn't matter to me and it doesn't matter to the guys right now because I don't think we're there yet," offensive tackle Michael Deiter said. "It'll matter when it's that time of the year. We still have four regular-season games left and if you don't win them, you're definitely not going to be in the playoffs. So that's really nothing to worry about right now. That's just too far in the future."

A far greater concern at this point should be the Badgers' inability to find a rhythm on offense, especially since the schedule gets a little tougher over the final four regular-season games and certainly in the Big Ten title game. It didn't help that 1,000-yard freshman tailback Jonathan Taylor limped off the field with a leg injury in the first half, but the offense was playing inconsistently even before then. All season, really.

The most commonly used phrase by the Badgers Saturday was, "We have a lot of things we've got to clean up." Most of the clean-up work is on offense, where inconsistency in the passing game is causing teams to hone in on UW's high-octane running game. The Badgers are finding it increasingly difficult to find running lanes and once opponents see how Illinois kept running linebackers into the backfield to blow up the run, it could get even more difficult.

Quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw another interception, his seventh in five Big Ten games, but played mistake-free football after that. Still, he was allowed to attempt only 19 passes in a game where Illinois lined up eight or nine men in the box all day.

"It's definitely frustrating because we know we haven't put together even close to a complete game and we know how good we can be," Deiter said. "I think that's the most frustrating part. You know how good you should be and, if you were just on, how good you would be. To be able to still do what we have with so much inconsistency I think is just a testament to what we could be. And we'll get there. It's nothing to worry about, it's nothing to freak out about because it's football. It's not always going to be the cleanest."

Others might be growing impatient that UW has yet to hit its stride offensively, but coach Paul Chryst isn't among them. At least not outwardly.

"There's been some really good stuff going on," he said. "Are we as good as we can be? I hope not."

After another closer-than-it-should-have-been game, it's easy to forget that UW hasn't lost yet, that it will almost certainly be favored in its final four games and that it could all but clinch the Big Ten West Division title on Saturday.

"We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing," defensive end Alec James said. "It’s not as pretty as we want it to be, but at the same time it’s a win in the Big Ten, so it’s good."

It may be good, but it's not great. And great is what the Badgers need to be to impress the CFP committee and position themselves better in the playoff race.

"It's going to work out," cornerback Derrick Tindal said. "It's going to all fall into place. We've got a lot we've got to work on, though. At the end of the day, we're going to have to keep winning. Once we keep winning, everything will work out."

The Badgers likely can secure a spot in the four-team field by winning out, including the Big Ten title game. Unless they find some consistency, however, their chances of winning out aren't good.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.

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