The SEC East champion will play for a spot in the College Football Playoff when they face Alabama in the SEC Championship on Dec. 19 in Atlanta. The SEC East champion won’t claim that spot, however, losing that game to finish the season with at least two losses and crush the conference’s hopes for another two-bid season. In doing so, Wisconsin could be the primary beneficiary.
In losing to Oregon in last year’s Rose Bowl, Wisconsin failed to close the decade with a 103rd win, which, after the national championship, would’ve tied LSU for the sixth-most wins last decade. A win also would’ve been the Badgers’ 64th in the playoff era, tying Boise State and, hours later after the Sugar Bowl, Georgia for fifth-most since 2014.
With the exception of Boise State, whose annual playoff path is arguably impassable along with every other Group of Five team, each of the teams above Wisconsin in 2014-19 wins has at least one playoff appearance. And five others below them—Florida State, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Oregon, and Washington–have one apiace. The Badgers have eight 10-win seasons in the last 11 years, haven’t won fewer than seven games since 2001, and from 2010-12 became the first Big Ten team to win three straight conference championships in nearly two decades.
Can Wisconsin get over the hump in 2020? Before playing a game, they’ve already received some charitable boosts and should receive a couple more.
Entering their season opener against Illinois on Friday night, Wisconsin’s playoff path is clear: Win the Big Ten Championship as an undefeated or one-loss team. Unequivocally, they’d be in as the 9-1 or 10-0 Big Ten champions. That, however, is a tall task given the, in my opinion, enormous gap between themselves and Ohio State, to whom they’ve lost eight straight, including last year’s loss in the Big Ten Championship.
Let’s take 10-0 off the table.
At 9-1 with good wins over Michigan and Minnesota, whom they throttled last year by a combined score of 73-31, noteworthy wins over potential top-25 teams Indiana and Iowa, along with a respectable loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship (e.g. 31-24, 34-24, etc.), Wisconsin will have a strong case for a playoff bid, partially thanks to second-tier parity in the ACC and SEC.
Both the ACC and SEC were (and still are if things break their way) capable of sending two teams to the playoff. However, Texas A&M’s win over Florida, Georgia’s loss to Alabama, and an ACC conference schedule that pits Clemson against both Notre Dame and Miami (FL), pushed the two-team potential from the ACC and SEC to the Big Ten, where Wisconsin is most likely to benefit.
Notre Dame will not beat Clemson on Nov. 7. There are few guarantees in college football…this is one of them; the Tigers will roll in South Bend. That outcome leaves Clemson as the conference’s lone unbeaten, which will remain the case through the ACC Championship, where the Tigers will beat one of the conference’s second-tier teams, most likely Miami (FL) or Notre Dame, unless you’re still clutching stock in North Carolina, North Carolina State, or Virginia Tech, all of whom would enter the game with at least one loss. Similarly in the SEC, the conference championship will feature an SEC East champion carrying at least one loss and heavy underdog status.
ACC Championship loser: Two or more losses.
SEC Championship loser: Two or more losses.
There are still scenarios in which a one-loss Wisconsin is left out, including a strong finish from Oklahoma State and/or unexpected contender from the Pac-12, but the second-tier parity within the ACC and SEC have put Wisconsin in a favorable position to reach their first-ever College Football Playoff.