It seems nothing in college football is getting less respect this week than the University of Wisconsin’s schedule.
Though the Badgers are 8-0 and ranked fourth in both human polls, they have no signature wins and many national experts are offering dire predictions about how far they will fall when the College Football Playoff committee reveals its initial standings Tuesday night. Seventh? Eighth? Even lower?
The culprits are a schedule that is softer than anyone expected and UW’s inability to earn style points in victories against lesser opponents.
So how did UW end up with such a soft schedule? It was one part the Badgers’ fault, one part out of their control and one part being just plain unlucky.
Everyone wants to blame athletic director Barry Alvarez and coach Paul Chryst for the current situation, but the only part they control is the non-conference schedule. UW opened with Alabama and LSU in Chryst’s first two seasons and he said Monday he loved playing those games but that they’re not available every year. And with games being scheduled well in advance, a school can’t control how good an opponent will be in a given year. For example, who expected Florida State to be 2-5?
The Sagarin computer rankings put UW’s schedule at 69th in the nation, which is second-worst among the top 13 teams in the AP poll, ahead of only Virginia Tech (76th). Washington (64th), Alabama (55th) and Georgia (51st) have also played easy schedules yet haven’t been criticized for it nearly as much as UW has.
Let’s start with the part that is out of the Badgers’ control — the Big Ten Conference schedule — because it hasn’t helped them at all. UW’s low strength of schedule is due in part to playing in the Big Ten West Division, which doesn’t have another team ranked in the top 25.
It doesn’t help the Badgers that their East Division crossover opponents are Maryland, Indiana and Michigan. The Terps and Hoosiers are struggling and the Wolverines, who were expected to give UW an opportunity for a signature win in November, are 6-2 and have dropped out of the top 25.
A year ago, UW played Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State from the East, then met Penn State in the Big Ten title game. It also faced LSU in non-conference play, so SOS was no problem.
But last year was last year. This year’s schedule must stand on its own and it is wobbly to say the least.
That’s where the fault comes in. UW opened its previous three seasons with games against LSU (twice) and Alabama. It doesn’t get any tougher than that. But there was no such made-for-TV intersectional matchup this season as UW had mid-majors Utah State and Florida Atlantic and independent BYU on what turned out to be a weak non-conference slate.
As much as local fans gripe about UW’s non-conference scheduling, it isn’t out of line with the scheduling approaches of other top schools. Most schools ranked in the top 13 scheduled one power-five conference opponent and filled the rest of their non-conference slates with mid-major and FCS teams.
The only exceptions this year are schools that have four non-conference games and are locked into a regional non-conference rivalry. Georgia plays Notre Dame and Georgia Tech plus one mid-major and one FCS team. Clemson plays Auburn and South Carolina plus one mid-major and one FCS team.
Otherwise, it’s pretty much one-and-done for the top teams in terms of difficult non-conference games. The other top-13 teams that play four non-conference games — Alabama, Miami and Virginia Tech — used the same scheduling formula of one power-five, two mid-major and one FCS team.
Among the schools that play only three non-conference games, Ohio State, Penn State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State each play one power-five and two mid-major teams while TCU and Washington play one power-five, one mid-major and one FCS team. Notre Dame plays an independent schedule that includes nine power-five teams and three mid-majors.
As you can see, UW’s non-conference schedule isn’t out of whack compared to other highly ranked teams. That’s where the Badgers got unlucky, though.
UW scheduled BYU thinking it would be a strong team that would help its profile. Though BYU is an independent, the Big Ten decreed two years ago that its schools could treat it like a power-five team for scheduling purposes.
Since BYU was coming off back-to-back nine-win seasons and has averaged 9.3 wins over the past 11 seasons, the Badgers figured the Cougars would be the equivalent of a good power-five opponent. They had no way of knowing that BYU would have its worst team since Brigham Young headed west. BYU’s 2-7 record is killing the Badgers even though it was their best performance of the season.
About all UW can do at this point is keep on winning. If it does, it will have chances to impress the committee.
Good wins are important to the committee and UW has only one top-30 win (Northwestern) according to Sagarin. However, future opponents Michigan and Iowa are ranked 22nd and 27th, respectively, by Sagarin and UW should face a top-10 opponent in the Big Ten final.
The Badgers could have helped themselves by dominating their opponents, so that’s on them. But the soft schedule was largely out of their control.