It felt like everything would work out. Sure, Wisconsin had been beaten on both sides of the ball throughout the game, but they couldn’t lose to BYU at Camp Randall. Finally cooling as the sun set over Section J, sweltering Badger fans watched Alex Hornibrook and the highly-touted UW offense march toward the Field House in what would be a game-winning touchdown to extinguish any notions of an upset.
Junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook evaded pass rushers, tossed aside a would-be tackler and showed scrambling abilities as he earned the Badgers a first down on BYU’s 26-yard line with over a minute to play. A short run and two incompletions later, the Badgers found themselves staring down a 42-yard field goal to extend the game. Shortly after, Badger fans silently streamed out of Camp Randall with their heads down in disbelief.
Never before had a Badger football team come into the season with more hype. Thirteen wins and a dominant victory over Miami in the Orange Bowl concluded arguably the most successful season in program history. With most of its pieces returning, fans have rightfully held high expectations.
It’s playoffs or bust this season for a team that has garnered the moniker “always good, rarely great.” Teams like BYU aren’t on the radar of fans hoping for regular season perfection twice in a row. Yet to some, the loss has spelled out an early demise of the season. Those fans are misguided, and I’m here to tell you why this team still has a chance at greatness.
It's happened before
Don’t write off UW’s chances at the playoffs with an early-season loss to BYU. The Colleg Football Playoff era has required that teams cruise through their schedules with near-perfection to earn a playoff bid. Yet, in its four years there have been four teams who made the playoffs with losses similar to the Badgers last Saturday:
- 2014: Ohio State lost at home by two touchdowns to an unranked Virginia Tech team that finished 7-6. The loss dropped the Buckeyes to No. 22 in the AP Poll before they subsequently beat Alabama and Oregon en route to a National Championship.
- 2016: Clemson lost at home to an unranked Pittsburgh team that finished 8-5. This Clemson team would beat Ohio State and Alabama to win a National Championship as well.
- 2017: Oklahoma lost at home to an unranked Iowa State team that likewise finished 8-5. They dropped to No. 12 in the AP Poll but still fought their way back to earn a playoff bid.
- 2017: Clemson lost at Syracuse, who finished just 4-8, but won out in their remaining games and entered the playoff ranked first in the country.
UW would be in better position for a playoff berth had they come out victorious against BYU. However, these four teams prove missteps don’t have to derail an entire season.
The Badgers still control their own destiny
Well, sort of. In the 2017-'18 season, it was well known that the Badgers needed a perfect regular season and a Big Ten title to make the playoffs. However, the 2018-'19 schedule is more difficult and provides them cushion to lose a game and still earn a bid. Unlike 2017’s relatively easy schedule, this 2018’s schedule includes road matchups against Michigan and Penn State on top of a likely matchup against Ohio State (provided they win the Big Ten West). Unfortunately, UW has already cashed in that cushion with an early season loss to BYU and must run the table from here on out. Conference play perfection is daunting but not unknown to this team.
Assuming perfection, the Badgers will have a resumé with wins over Michigan, Penn State and the Big Ten East champion (most likely Ohio State). This earns a playoff bid most years, provided the aforementioned teams don’t stumble and remain quality wins. Fans still capable of watching football last weekend watched Ohio State beat TCU in a game that could become decisive for UW’s playoff chances. It remains the sole quality win for the Big Ten in non-conference play, a measure for the playoff committee when assessing conference strengths. Even with perfection through the remaining schedule, UW will need a little help. Of the Power Five conferences, only four are eligible. Accordingly, UW will need a two-loss conference champion from at least one of the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and PAC-12. A second consecutive undefeated season from UCF (not a member of a Power Five conference) would have a strong case to be considered as well.
Don’t give up hope
It’s easy to lose hope on a team that seemingly had perfection in sight. Trips to the Capital One Bowl no longer meet the bar for this UW program. This loss is devastating. It’s unexpected. It’s a disruption to how this season was supposed to go. But it isn’t over. This, in many ways, is still the team that went into Miami’s house and dominated them in front of their hometown crowd. Don’t forget that, and don’t give up hope on this team. However, none of this matters without execution in a spooky night game at Kinnick Stadium against the Hawkeyes.