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Wisconsin Might Have Power 5's Easiest Path to Playoff

Wisconsin finally gave up some points in the second half, but the Badgers held off Northwestern and remain on track for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The debate over which teams belong in the College Football Playoff is typically dominated by talk of non-conference schedule strength, quality wins and so-called style points. For Wisconsin, its argument for the playoff could come down to something much simpler: It barely had to play anyone good.

The Badgers moved to 4-0 on Saturday after beating Northwestern, 33-24, at Camp Randall Stadium. They had already cruised to double-digit victories over Utah State, Florida Atlantic and BYU and, believe it or not, the matchup with the Wildcats was one of their biggest remaining obstacles.

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A year after facing a brutal slate including a Week 1 meeting with LSU and back-to-back dates at Michigan and against Ohio State, Wisconsin will benefit from the Power 5’s smoothest road to the national semifinals. According to Football Outsiders, the Badgers’ lowest win probability in a game this season is 61% (against Michigan in Madison on Nov. 18).

The biggest reason Wisconsin could waltz to the final four is the overall lack of quality in the Big Ten West. Only one of its teams, Minnesota (39), ranks inside the top 40 of Football Outsiders latest S&P + ratings, and the Gophers lost 31-24 at home on Saturday to a Maryland squad down to its third-string quarterback.

The Badgers also plowed through a tissue-soft non-conference schedule featuring zero Power 5 opponents, and their crossover games in the Big Ten East are much less forbidding than they were a year ago: Maryland, Indiana and Michigan. The tilt with the Wolverines may not afford Wisconsin the luxury of running out its 2s and 3s in garbage time, but it’s a tough date for Michigan: It’ll play rival Ohio State on the road a week later.

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Reducing Wisconsin’s playoff case to a weak schedule would be misguided. True freshman Jonathan Taylor, who entered Saturday averaging 8.3 yards per carry on 53 carries with five touchdowns, looks like the next star in Wisconsin’s illustrious running back lineage, and sophomore Alex Hornibrook was leading all Big Ten quarterbacks in efficiency (188.98) and tied for first in completion percentage (70).

The Badgers’ defense, under the command of first-year coordinator Jim Leonhard, is difficult to evaluate at this point, because none of the offenses they’ve faced has really stressed Wisconsin on the ground or through the air. The D should receive some praise, however, for only giving up 14 second-half points through five weeks, all of which came against Northwestern.

Whether Wisconsin’s success owes more to its own capability or its lackluster competition, it will eventually have to take out a formidable opponent to make the playoff. Whether it’s Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State or another squad, it’s safe to assume the Big Ten East winner would push the Badgers in the conference title game.

Until then, though, Wisconsin will probably fly under the radar while building a CFP-caliber résumé without sweating out the rigorous sequence of foes other Power 5 squads will need to navigate.