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Wisconsin football: are...are the Badgers serious Playoff contenders?

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ESPN’s FPI has Wisconsin ranked as the No. 4 team in the nation heading into the 2020 season.

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The Clemson Tigers. The Alabama Crimson Tide. The Ohio State Buckeyes. These are teams that everyone expects to contend for a bid to the College Football Playoff yearly. The Wisconsin Badgers aren’t usually one of those teams. At best, the Badgers are sniffing around the top-five but not quite a serious title contender.

However, ESPN’s current preseason FPI rankings have slotted the Badgers into the final Playoff spot. Is Wisconsin a serious Playoff contender this year? A few weeks ago we discussed each game on the Badgers schedule, as predicted by FPI, and Wisconsin would be favored to win each game they played in the regular season.

For a more pessimistic, and probably reasonable, view take a look at Tom Fornelli’s preseason predictions at CBS Sports. To be fair, he still has the Badgers going to the B1G Title game but with four losses they will not be contending for a CFP spot.

ESPN breaks down their own system and seems a bit surprised that Wisconsin is so highly ranked, “FPI is surprisingly high on the Badgers, giving them a 34% chance to reach the playoff and a 6% shot to win the national championship, leading a tightly knit pack of dark horse contenders.”

Wisconsin brings back senior quarterback Jack Coan, who was highly rated by ESPN’s QBR metric last season, finishing No. 9 in the nation (No. 3 in the B1G). The Badgers should also have another highly ranked defense and a solid offensive line. Despite losing all-American running back Jonathan Taylor, the Badgers should also have a nice complement of skill position players back too:

Well, the Badgers are bringing back a successful quarterback in Jack Coan, who finished eighth in Total QBR last season. (Writer’s note: the link above to the QBR rankings have Coan at ninth, so I don’t know what this means.) They rank in the top 31 in both offensive and defensive experience and have continuity at head coach. That explains why FPI says Wisconsin is good, but it’s still surprising to see it with a better playoff chance than a team from, say, the Big 12, given that Ohio State is ahead of the Badgers and in the same conference.

ESPN also notes that, while the Badgers have a strong schedule in 2020, they miss the most difficult opponent of their season until, potentially, the B1G Title game:

But Wisconsin has fortune on its side in 2020. Because in a year when we think the Badgers are going to be pretty darned good, they also avoid Ohio State in the regular season. Right now in Big Ten football, that’s key. And while the Badgers would most likely face Ohio State in a potential Big Ten championship game (the Buckeyes have a 69% chance to win the Big Ten East), a loss there wouldn’t necessarily be disqualifying.

Because Wisconsin has a strong schedule, if the Badgers were to go 12-0 to start the year — including wins at Michigan and vs. Notre Dame and Minnesota — but lose in the Big Ten championship game, the Allstate Playoff Predictor would still give them a 74% chance to reach the playoff. They’d take that! That exact scenario — Wisconsin winning its scheduled contests but losing in Indianapolis — happens in more than 10% of our simulations. Part of the reason: None of the three opponents I mentioned earlier (Michigan, Notre Dame, Minnesota) cracked FPI’s top 15.

Now, will the Badgers actually go undefeated in the regular season this year? It’s unlikely, but Wisconsin will have a legitimate chance to win all of their games and set themselves up for even more postseason heartbreak. As far as I’m concerned the Badgers will probably lose to somebody stupid like Northwestern while beating Michigan, Minnesota and Notre Dame and just screw all this up.