On July 9th, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren announced that all Big Ten schools will play a conference-only football schedule in 2020. Many have speculated this is the first step to cancelling the upcoming season, but we’ll remain optimistic and assume the Badgers play their full conference slate for the purpose of this article.
For fans who planned on attending the much-anticipated clash against Notre Dame at Lambeau field, Warren’s announcement was a crushing blow. This was slated to be Wisconsin’s first game in Green Bay since the Badgers toppled a heavily-favored LSU team in 2016. Instead, the game has been postponed indefinitely. Both Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbick affirmed their commitment to rescheduling the game in an upcoming season, but no date has been confirmed as of yet. The two programs are still scheduled to meet at Soldier Field in 2021.
Losing the Notre Dame game will have by far the biggest impact on Wisconsin’s 2020 schedule. Games against Southern Illinois and Appalachian State were also cancelled, and while the latter may have given the Badgers some trouble, the Fighting Irish were by far the most talented of the non-conference opponents on paper.
What does that mean for the Badgers going forward? Well, it could mean a number of things.
As far as the playoffs are concerned, the conference only schedule may very well help the Badgers chances. With or without Notre Dame, the path to the playoffs remains practically the same. Win the Big Ten with one loss or fewer, and the Badgers are more than likely playoff bound.
Winning the game against Notre Dame would have been a fantastic addition to Wisconsin’s resume, but a loss could have just as easily crippled their playoff chances. The Badgers opened as 2.5 point favorites against the Fighting Irish, giving them an implied win probability of slightly over 50%. Losing that game would leave Wisconsin zero room for error against a tough conference slate that includes Minnesota, Iowa, and Michigan.
Instead, the Badgers will have significantly more breathing room with a schedule that’s now quite a bit lighter. Wisconsin is favored in eight of nine conference games, with its clash at Michigan the lone outlier. That trip will be made much easier when Michigan inevitably announces that there will be no fans in the stands for the upcoming season, and the same is true of a Thanksgiving weekend trip to Iowa, a notoriously tough place to play in November.
Conceivably, the Badgers could lose one of their conference games, win the Big Ten West, win the Big Ten, and then still make the playoffs. It remains to be seen, however, how the playoff committee will treat the Big Ten and Pac-12, the two conferences that have announced moves to the abridged conference only schedule.
The Big 12, SEC, and ACC have all announced their intention to play out their non-conference schedules. If they do end up playing 12 games a piece, the playoff committee might have some seriously difficult decisions to make. Would an 8-1 Big Ten Champion Wisconsin make the playoff over a 12-1 Alabama team that lost its first game in the SEC championship? It’s impossible to say, but it’s easy to see how the imbalance in scheduling could make things very difficult for the committee.
That difficulty extends past the playoffs. In all likelihood, Wisconsin will not be in the playoff conversation after championship week, but the abridged schedule will have bowl implications nonetheless. The Badgers have been to three New Year’s Six bowl games in the past four seasons, and would undoubtedly like to be back in 2020. It’s there, however, that the loss of the Notre Dame game could have a serious impact.
Wisconsin received a Rose Bowl bid over Penn State last season in part because of resounding wins against Minnesota and Michigan, two top-15 opponents. A win against Notre Dame, which has commonly featured in the top ten in various preseason polls, might have had a similar impact. Again, it’s impossible to know how the playoff committee--which decides all bowl matchups--will treat conference-only resumes, especially if the Big Ten and Pac-12 stand alone in their decision to play an abridged schedule.
In the event that the season is cancelled altogether, the Badgers will have seven projected starters graduate and miss their senior season, including quarterback Jack Coan, receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor, tackle Cole Van Lanen, and safety Eric Burrell. Coan, Van Lanen, and Burrell are on watch lists for postseason awards at their respective positions, and it would be a brutal blow if they lost their senior year. While the Badgers have impressive depth at quarterback, tackle, and safety, the wide receiver position is a gigantic question mark headed into 2021, with presumed backups AJ Abbott and Taj Mustapha having combined for just one career catch.
It’s impossible to know if a season will be played in 2020 and what it will eventually look like if the players ever take the field, but we can be certain that the unprecedented situation we face will reshape the college football landscape. Unfortunately for Badgers fans, that landscape will have to do without the Notre Dame-Wisconsin game many looked forward to.