The Chinese philosopher Confucius once said that “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” William Shakespeare echoed him, saying “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
If these erudite thinkers were indeed correct, then I must be the wisest man of all time when it comes to the College Football Playoff rankings.
It’s been three full seasons since the current playoff system went into effect, and there still seem to be far more questions than answers. Does the committee favor what it considers to be the “best” teams in the country? The “most deserving?” How much does winning a major conference championship really matter? Due to rampant inconsistencies and the lack of a clear formula, every passing week leaves fans clamoring for answers.
When the first rankings of the year are released Tuesday, this stated need for explanation will become all the more clear. In a season in which there’s such a small gap between all the so-called “great teams,” many fan bases will likely feel slighted by the committee’s decision. I have a strong premonition that Wisconsin fans will respond in kind.
Alabama and Georgia, the two undefeated teams in the SEC, each have an unquestioned claim to spots in the top four. Beyond those, however, it gets much fuzzier. Teams like Ohio State, Penn State and Notre Dame all boast one-loss résumés, with each of its losses coming to teams currently in the top-10 in the AP rankings. TCU, Clemson and Oklahoma each have racked up impressive victories but fallen to teams it should have beaten.
Finally, there’s Wisconsin and Miami. Both teams remain undefeated but have occasionally played poorly against inferior competition. For this column—until “Unopinionated” is inevitably picked up and syndicated in newspapers around the world—we’re going to just focus on the Badgers.
This weekend, a veritable maelstrom erupted in Twitter feeds around the nation. Wisconsin’s lackluster victory over Illinois, in conjunction with the impending release of the first rankings, prompted many analysts—and many more armchair analysts—to weigh in on UW’s record and its strength of schedule. As CBS Sports’ Tom Fornelli put it on Twitter Saturday afternoon, “I’m currently trying to rank Wisconsin’s wins from best to worst and I’m giving serious consideration to putting FAU at No. 1.”
No one can make a serious argument that Wisconsin’s schedule has been arduous. But experts and fans alike seem to think that that’s UW’s fault. Many amateur analysts offer this lazy critique: “Who has Wisconsin beaten?”
Maybe the Badgers haven’t beaten anyone of note, but they haven’t really played anyone of note. And most importantly, they haven’t slipped up against inferior competition in the way that almost every other team has.
Some observers seem to be under the impression that UW designed the schedule this way way, and that this easy slate was somehow a mass conspiracy led by conniving Wisconsin administrators. Few seem to realize that it’s hardly the fault of schedule makers that this season turned out the way it has. The relative weakness of the Big Ten West has recently prompted talk of realigning the divisions, and rightfully so—the lacuna between the two has gotten all the more pronounced in recent years. But it’s no fault of Wisconsin’s that Northwestern, Iowa, Nebraska and its other West counterparts are having down years. Its relatively easy crossover schedule was also a coincidence. Furthermore, those who point at the nonconference slate tend to forget that BYU was a consistent 10-win team when the Badgers scheduled them, and that Utah State was an ascendant program at the time as well.
Granted, Wisconsin still clearly needs to prove itself in big games. And it will get those opportunities in November and December. But faulting UW for not having any “big” wins simply overlooks the fact that most of the Badgers’ competitors happen to be having down years. Next year’s schedule, with road games against Penn State and Michigan, will likely provide more opportunities for “signature wins.” This year, however, Wisconsin’s job has been to play with the hand they were dealt and avoid any serious calamities. And in that sense, it has been far more successful than almost every other school in the nation.
At the end of the day, the stakes are clear: run the table in the regular season and win in Indianapolis, and the committee will have to pick the Badgers. Fall short, and they’ll only have themselves to blame. Until then, all the talk is exactly that — just talk. And as Confucius also said, “Talk is cheap.” (I think? Maybe I should be spending more time polishing up on my ancient philosophy, and less time perusing the depths of my Twitter feed.)