Submitted by Richie Baccellieri on Monday, November 21, 2016 at 9:14 AM
After losing close games to Ohio State and Michigan in October, any hopes the Wisconsin Badgers had of making the College Football Playoff looked dead in the water. But the Badgers picked themselves up, started ripping through the softer opponents of the Big Ten West and are now on the cusp of winning the Big Ten title, with the real possibility of making the Playoff. The odds of Wisconsin doing what was once unthinkable—winning the national championship—have now shortened to 12-1, or the same price as Michigan.
To decide whether the Badgers are a good bet, let’s first look at their path to the Playoff. They’ll need to hold serve at home on Saturday against Minnesota as a two-touchdown favorite. If they end up playing Michigan or Ohio State in the conference championship game, the Badgers would likely control their own destiny for getting one of the four Playoff spots.
But...if the chalk holds in the two key games of the Big Ten East this weekend it will be Penn State that comes out of this side of the division. If the Lions beat Michigan State as a (-12.5) favorite and get some help from Ohio State, nearly a touchdown favorite at home over Michigan, then your Big Ten Championship Game is Penn State-Wisconsin.
An optimist would say that beating the Nittany Lions will be an easier row to hoe for the Badgers. A pessimist would point out that it could be a worst-case scenario. Wisconsin would play an opponent still good enough to beat them, yet not get the credit they may need from the Playoff Committee. Wisconsin might still end up needing help to vault past a potential one-loss Pac-12 champ in Washington, a two-loss Big 12 champ in Oklahoma or even an 11-1 Big Ten runner-up in Ohio State.
For the moment though, let’s say the Badgers win their games and make the Playoff. Are they good enough to get the additional two wins they’ll need?
The optimists can look at one of the country’s truly outstanding defenses. They rank sixth nationally in points allowed. The coverage on the corners in particular is outstanding and T.J. Watt is a big-time playmaker in the front seven. Offensively, Corey Clement is a 1,000-yard running back, Dare Ogunwable is a good change-of-pace quick hitter and Jazz Peavy can stretch the field on the outside.
The pessimists have their own case to make. The Badgers have serious problems at quarterback, as bad as there is among any national title contender. Alex Hornibrook is a nice prospect and growing in his freshman year. In the here and now, he’s still erratic and has a a tendency to let one mistake avalanche into more...so much so that head coach Paul Chryst often needs to bring in physically limited fifth-year senior Bart Houston just to give Hornibrook time to collect himself. Wisconsin also has major problems in the kicking game and field goals are often an adventure.
Thus, we’re looking at a situation where a team that has to run the ball and keep it close against top teams (i.e., Alabama, Clemson, perhaps Michigan or Ohio State again) has a mistake-prone quarterback and an erratic kicker. That’s not a formula for pulling off the kind of upsets the Badgers will need to pull off to win a national championship.
If Wisconsin was 40-1 or even 30-1, the strengths of this team would be worth a longshot play. But not at 12-1. If you believe in the Badgers, just bet them game-by-game.