I know we’re all completely shocked after Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide just won their sixth National Championship together on Monday night.
Now none of this matters and it’s very obvious that there are the big three (‘Bama, Ohio State and Clemson) who are in a league of their own and are likely the only three with any legitimate chance to win a national title outside of maybe Georgia on a year in and year out basis.
However, what if we moved the goalposts? What if we changed it from “What Wisconsin has to do to WIN the CFP” to “What Wisconsin has to do to COMPETE for a spot in the CFP”?
Because truthfully, some would tell you that Wisconsin had a glimmer of a chance in 2017 when they were 12-0 and heading into the Big Ten Championship Game, which they lost to Ohio State 27-21. Even in 2019, despite ending with four losses, if they beat Illinois like they should, and some how hold on to beat Ohio State in the conference championship game, which they led by multiple scores in. Maybe, a one-loss Big Ten Champion could get into the CFP.
So before we take a look at the positions that need to be better to make this a possibility, let’s take a quick look at what positions are already at a level that would be passable:
- Running back - Now, maybe this isn’t the current state of the position, but I’m willing to say that with the run of backs the Badgers have had in just the last ten years (Montee Ball, John Clay, James White, Melvin Gordon, Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale, Jonathan Taylor) that they’re doing well enough at the position to survive.
Jalen Berger looks to be the immediate future at the position and Wisconsin has the track record at the position that I’m willing to go out on a limb that they’ll find another back to push or compliment Berger. The running back room isn’t what’s holding UW back.
- Tight End - While it’s a lot of Jake Ferguson right now, a combination of Hayden Rucci, Clay Cundiff, Cole Dakovich and Cole Large with Jack Pugh as an incoming freshman, this position has the potential to make an impact. Ferguson is among the nation’s best at the position, and Wisconsin doesn’t ask their tight ends to do a ton outside of in-line blocking and being a secondary option in passing concepts.
One of those non-Ferguson targets will need to continue to develop into the future primary tight end target, but that group right now is good enough to compete for a spot.
- Inside Linebacker - Arguably the strongest position group on the team right now. Since 2015, every player who has started a game for the Badgers at the position is currently in the NFL or on Wisconsin’s roster. Not a bad little track record.
Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal are good enough at the position right now. Maema Njongmeta and Tatum Grass seem to be the next two up, with Jordan Turner, Malik Reed and Preston Zachman all guys who saw some time during their true freshman year that will become a redshirt year. They’re also bringing in Jack’s younger brother Bryan, as well as Jake Chaney and Jake Ratzlaff. The position is loaded.
Now, I’m not going to list every other position in this area, but the ones that need dramatic improvement.
- Quarterback - Let me be clear, Graham Mertz, as he continues to develop, is good enough to get Wisconsin to a CFP. If the rest of the roster will be good enough around him is still to be seen.
Also, for Wisconsin to truly be a CFP contender, they’ll need to continue to bring in quarterbacks slightly more talented than their usual recruits in order to take advantage of their edges over their opponents at other positions. Mertz is somewhat of an aberration for the position for Wisconsin, so talents in the same ballpark as Mertz will need to be obtained more regularly to sustain this type of success.
- Wide Receiver - Simply put, the Badgers don’t have enough talent at wide receiver. In 2017, arguably the most talented group the program has ever had was hamstrung by quarterback play, but Wisconsin is currently a far cry from Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor.
While Pryor and Davis look like they’ll be sticking around for 2021, they need a lot more than two competent wide receivers to make a push. Jack Dunn can’t be playing if you want to get where you haven’t been before. Chim Dike and Devin Chandler playing as freshman is both encouraging and disheartening. They’ll need more improvement and contribution at the position for Wisconsin to pose enough of an aerial threat to teams more talented than they are.
- Offensive Line - This one hurts a little bit. Since Michael Deiter, Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards all left in 2018, the Wisconsin offensive line hasn’t been very good (by their standards). They’ve been fine, they’ve cleared the path for Jonathan Taylor to rush for a lot of yards and are still an above average unit in the scope of college football, but if Wisconsin wants to get to the CFP, they need THE OLD WISCONSIN OFFENSIVE LINE.
In all seriousness, if you watched the National Championship on Monday night you saw two of the best offensive lines in college football. It’s my opinion (only my opinion) that no Wisconsin offensive linemen would start on either Alabama or Ohio State.
That’s not a winning formula. Wisconsin has the cavalry on it’s way (Logan Brown, Joe Tippmann, Jack Nelson, Trey Wedig, Nolan Rucci, Riley Mahlman and JP Benzschawel are all 4-star or above OL on the roster or on their way), but currently Wisconsin has to be more athletic and better up front to truly run their offense and impose their will on teams more physically talented than them.
- Outside Linebacker - Simply put, for Wisconsin to make a run at the CFP, this defense needs to be nasty. Like, really nasty. And for the Badgers’ 3-4, that starts and ends with the outside linebackers. Wisconsin will always be able to stop the run and be solid up the middle, but the way to really ratchet up this defense is to have some dudes on the outside who can rush the passer and set a physical edge in the run game.
Nick Herbig may get to that point in the next four years, the arrow is pointed in the right direction at least. Noah Burks can not be a starter for this to happen. A greater level of talent is necessary, and the Badgers have recruited the position well. Kaden Johnson, Aaron Witt, T.J. Bollers, Darryl Peterson and Ayo Adebogun are all incoming or on the roster and were sought after recruits. They’ll need to fulfill that promise for this defense to be what it needs to be.
- Cornerback - While the Badgers’ cornerback play has improved under Jim Leonhard’s tutelage, to compete for a CFP spot, you need dudes that can cover and hold their own against wide receivers from Ohio State. Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal were able to a couple of seasons ago, but this Badgers’ secondary is all of the sudden very experienced and upperclassmen heavy.
Alabama over the past two seasons has trotted out four first round pick wide receivers, and Ohio State isn’t far behind with at least two this year. Clemson is always loaded at receiver as well, so ultimately to get where you want to go, the secondary needs to be stocked with talent. Safety, I actually believe is near where Wisconsin would like to be, but continued upgrades at cornerback should be a priority for every program in the country, not just Wisconsin.
Ultimately, Wisconsin isn’t all that far off. This is probably a bit over-critical, as I mentioned Wisconsin really hasn’t been that far away a few times in recent history. With their recent upward trend in recruiting, they’ll continue to put themselves in position to have a chance. Ultimately, they’ll need everything to line up right, like it did in 2017, but it’s not impossible.
Keep the faith, Badgers fans!