ESPN colleague and stat wizard Brad Edwards has taken a stab at identifying five sleepers for the 2013 season by trying to find teams that were better than their records last year. Edwards did so with an advanced metric called Extra Points Added while taking into account the strength of each team's opponents.
The numbers spit out that Wisconsin was better than its 8-6 record last season indicated, Edwards writes.
Adjusted EPA shows Wisconsin to be one of the top 25 teams of 2012, and anyone who watched the Badgers' final five games would have difficulty disputing that. What is a little surprising is to see Wisconsin with an adjusted offensive EPA that ranked in the top 30 nationally. The Badgers, using three starting quarterbacks, posed little threat in the passing game and, as a result, were largely ineffective at converting on third down. But what they did extremely well -- a staple of their offenses in recent years -- was not turn the ball over.
Edwards notes that the Badgers had a chance to win in the fourth quarter in all six of their losses last season. Their six losses came by a combined 25 points, and two of them were in overtime. Plus, several of the teams that defeated them -- including Oregon State, Ohio State and Penn State -- had better-than-expected seasons. Wisconsin also (barely) beat an underrated Utah State team, which was coached by new Badgers head man Gary Andersen.
While all of those things are true, we can't overlook the fact that the team's offensive line was a mess early in the season, or that its first choice as starting quarterback, Danny O'Brien, proved ineffective. Wisconsin also struggled to generate a consistent passing game, and a one-dimensional offense plus a shaky field goal unit certainly played a role in its inability to finish out games (though Badgers fans would probably like to blame Bret Bielema for those late-game failures).
That said, there are plenty of reasons to believe Wisconsin could be a sleeper in 2013. The Badgers finally have some depth and more experience at quarterback and should remain strong defensively. The schedule is also a huge factor. The toughest nonconference tests are at Arizona State on Sept. 14 and at home against BYU on Nov. 9. In conference play, Wisconsin doesn't have to play Nebraska, Michigan or Michigan State from the Legends Division. It does have to go to Ohio State, but the other Big Ten road games are at Illinois, at Iowa and at Minnesota, three teams that combined to lose 24 games in 2012.
With that schedule, the Badgers could easily outplay their modest preseason projections -- Mark Schlabach has them at No. 25 right now, while Phil Steele ranks then No. 20. The biggest question is likely how the team will adjust to a new coaching staff and system.
Speaking of sleepers, shouldn't Michigan State qualify just as much as Wisconsin? Like the Badgers, the Spartans were probably better than their record in 2012. Their five Big Ten losses came by a total of 13 points, and they also lost to two top-five teams in Notre Dame and Ohio State. While Michigan State's offense was putrid at times, Mark Dantonio's team also suffered some bad luck, including questionable calls, key missed field goals and a surprising lack of turnovers created by an otherwise elite defense.
Assuming a few more breaks go the Spartans' way this year, and the offense can be even somewhat competent, they have a chance to improve against a schedule that does not include Wisconsin, Ohio State or Penn State from the Leaders Division and sees Michigan and Northwestern come to East Lansing.