The prospect of an unbeaten and Big Ten champion Wisconsin poses a conundrum for the College Football Playoff selection committee. The Badgers were No. 9 in the first CFP ranking, and while there will be movement among the top 10 when the second ranking is revealed tonight (7 p.m. ET on ESPN and the ESPN App), each of the top five teams won in Week 10, limiting how far they can likely climb.
If it were as simple as being undefeated, both Wisconsin and Miami would be in the top four right now. The selection committee has a different approach to ranking teams that goes against the grain of the old BCS formula. The committee prioritizes quality of wins and made it clear last week it believes Wisconsin is lacking in that category.
While the mere suggestion that an undefeated Power 5 conference champion could be left out of the playoff infuriates some and simply bewilders many, it's a scenario the committee hasn't been faced with yet.
"I think that would be very difficult to do," said Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who spent the past three seasons on the selection committee before his term expired. "There's no part of me that says if you go undefeated as a Power 5 [team] and win your conference championship -- and you're not going to be in the final four? I don't see that. That would shock me."
It would be more shocking than Ohio State getting in last season without even winning its division. It would be more shocking than TCU dropping from No. 3 to No. 6 in the final week in 2014. But with 13 people tasked with choosing the four best teams -- not the four most deserving -- we've also learned there really is no precedent.
"There's no part of me that says if you go undefeated as a Power 5 and win your conference championship, and you're not going to be in the final four? I don't see that. That would shock me."Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez
Wisconsin (9-0) is going to need some help and has zero wiggle room. ESPN's Football Power Index gives the Badgers a 99.7 percent chance to win the Big Ten West, and they would likely face the winner of Saturday's game between Michigan State and Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. ESPN Analytics ranks Wisconsin's strength of schedule at No. 73, and Wisconsin has no wins over teams currently ranked in the committee's top 25. Of the teams ranked ahead of the Badgers in the most recent CFP top 10, excluding Ohio State and Penn State, which lost this week, Alabama is the next-lowest ranked at No. 46.
"Strength of schedule is just not there," committee chair Kirby Hocutt said last Tuesday. "Their best win in the eyes of the selection committee is against a 5-3 Northwestern team, so the selection committee looks forward to watching Wisconsin continue to play, and looks forward to them playing quality opponents in the weeks ahead."
Wisconsin's next two opponents are home games against Iowa (6-3) and Michigan (7-2), two teams that have a good chance of cracking the committee's top 25 tonight. Of course, Alvarez is aware of the Catch-22: Should Wisconsin win each of the next two weeks, those opponents would likely drop out of the top 25 again as a result.
"In the regular [season] schedule you could have two, for sure," Alvarez said of Wisconsin's possible ranked opponents, "and Northwestern's not far from being ranked. I think everybody's gotta be smart enough to realize, who are quality wins? It's not always just are they a ranked opponent? A quality win, how many wins did they have?"
One metric that is useful is ESPN's strength of record. Essentially, it measures the chances that an average top-25 team would have the same record against the same schedule. In Wisconsin's case, an average top-25 team would have a 33 percent chance to be 9-0 at this stage of the season. For comparison's sake, that team would have a 5 percent chance to be 9-0 playing Georgia's schedule.
With both Ohio State and Penn State losing in Week 10, the Badgers will move up a few spots tonight and become the Big Ten's highest-ranked team, but they still will be behind at least three one-loss teams in Notre Dame, Clemson and Oklahoma. If all of those teams win out, and the SEC champ is in, which of those teams would fall out at Wisconsin's expense? What if Oklahoma and Wisconsin both finish with wins over Ohio State? What if Notre Dame and Wisconsin both finish with wins over Michigan State? The committee will compare common opponents.
If the Badgers do finish undefeated and win the Big Ten title, they are projected to have a 93.7 percent chance of finishing in the top four of strength of record. Eleven of the past 12 CFP participants have finished in the top four, with the only exception being Ohio State in 2014 (sixth).
"All I keep hearing is 'if they run the table, if they run the table,'" Alvarez said. "I've heard that since the first week. Well, there aren't many that do that."
If Wisconsin wants to leave no doubt with the committee that it's a top-four team, it doesn't have much choice.