Last week’s 59-24 drubbing of Nebraska was Wisconsin’s most impressive victory since, well, the previous meeting between those two teams, a 70-31 Badger beatdown in the 2012 Big Ten title game.
Sometimes a win is more than a win. That’s what last Saturday was. The Badgers have recently had a stigma that they can’t win big games. Sure enough, the losses seem to stick out—LSU this year, Ohio State last season, four straight bowl game defeats. But throttling Nebraska serves as a reminder that yes, this is a very good program capable of beating the best.
Two games remain in the regular season and Wisconsin is in control of its own destiny. Win both, and the Badgers will head to Indianapolis Dec. 6 to play for the Big Ten championship. With the postseason looming, it’s time to do a little scoreboard watching.
There are four teams who still can win the Big Ten West—Wisconsin (5-1 Big Ten, 8-2 overall), Nebraska (4-2, 8-2), Minnesota (4-2, 7-3) and Iowa (4-2, 7-3). As far as head-to-head tiebreakers go, Wisconsin beat Nebraska and Minnesota beat Iowa. The schedule makers did a good job making the end of the regular season suspenseful, considering four head-to-head matchups remain between these four teams.
If the Badgers beat Iowa, the Hawkeyes would be eliminated from contention. Whoever loses the Saturday game between Minnesota and Nebraska will be eliminated regardless. Since Wisconsin owns the tiebreaker with the Huskers, the Badgers would clinch the division with a win over Iowa and a Minnesota loss.
That’s the simple scenario. If the Badgers win but the Gophers beat Nebraska, then the Nov. 29 battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe in Madison functions as a division title game.
If Wisconsin loses to Iowa, then all hell breaks loose. The loser of Minnesota vs. Nebraska would still be eliminated, but a Badger loss to the Hawkeyes means three teams would be alive going into the final weekend.
If the Badgers do win the West and end up in Indianapolis, then they will most likely play Ohio State, which owns a one-game lead and the tiebreaker with second-place Michigan State. The Buckeyes have sort of been Wisconsin’s white whale recently, as the Badgers have lost six of the past seven meetings.
Though the Badgers would certainly be the underdog in this hypothetical matchup, it would be a collision between the two best teams in the Big Ten. According to F/+ rating, an advanced stat that evaluates all meaningful plays and possessions to holistically rank every team in the nation, Ohio State and Wisconsin are both statistically better than Michigan State and the rest of the conference.
This is all looking very far into the future. Though the Badgers are in prime position to win the Big Ten West, they are not a team without major issues. No one should expect Wisconsin to simply coast into the conference title game. Two games are left, and both are against good teams. This won’t be easy.
But to be in control of their fate is rather impressive, considering the Badgers opened conference play with a baffling loss to Northwestern. While that outcome remains bizarre, it’s a testament to the ineffective quarterbacking that could derail this team in the postseason.
Head coach Gary Andersen stresses in every postgame conference that Wisconsin has overcome adversity all season long. While this is definitely some classic coachspeak, it’s also true. This is a team that probably should be undefeated, with that stunning collapse against LSU and the absurd loss to Northwestern.
Credit the Badgers for staying focused following a painfully slow start to the season. While the rebound began with wins over poor teams (Illinois, Purdue) and mediocre teams (Maryland, Rutgers), it was validated with that dominating performance against Nebraska. The Huskers are arguably the best opponent Wisconsin has played so far and the Badgers completely obliterated them.
To fight through the early struggles and win the West would be the biggest achievement of Andersen’s brief tenure at Wisconsin. Though the Big Ten’s national profile has been weak in recent years, playing for a conference title is no small feat.
That’s what made last Saturday so significant. Wisconsin put itself in a position to accomplish that goal. Even with glaring inconsistencies in the passing game, having the best defense in the nation and a Heisman candidate in Melvin Gordon make the Badgers capable of beating any team in the country.