Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez isn’t saying anything controversial.
On Monday, the former Badgers coach told ESPN it would be “very difficult” to leave an undefeated Power 5 conference champion out of the College Football Playoff. Call it a calculated preemptive strike before Wisconsin (9-0) was listed at No. 8 in the second set of College Football Playoff rankings Tuesday.
Alvarez is right, of course, but those rankings are doing their best to prove him wrong. They’re not a big deal yet, even if the Badgers should be ranked ahead of No. 6 TCU (8-1). The Horned Frogs are one spot ahead of another unbeaten team, No. 7 Miami (8-0). The committee clearly is emphasizing quality wins over win-loss record, but it is also propping up some concerning hypotheticals for Badgers fans.
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Or it’s at least trying to. For example, ESPN analyst Booger McFarland said on the rankings telecast that “Auburn is better than Wisconsin” and AU “controls its own destiny better than Wisconsin.”
The first one is debatable, at best. No. 10 Auburn (7-2) better than Wisconsin? Based on what? Eye test? Feel? The 2015 Outback Bowl? It’s sure as hell not win-loss record.
The Tigers’ best win was against Mississippi State, which was No. 24 at the time. If you get too transfixed on that as a “quality win,” then good luck. Wisconsin hasn’t beaten a ranked team, but what’s the gap between Mississippi State and No. 25 Northwestern, which the Badgers beat on Sept. 30, or No. 20 Iowa, which they face this week?
How much does the committee value so-called “quality wins”? Northwestern is ranked and Michigan (7-2) is not, which in itself is flat-out wrong. The Badgers are forced to hope the Wolverines will be ranked before they meet next week so that’s considered a quality win. That’s just dumb.
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McFarland is on the right track with the second point, however, which is a problem for the Badgers. That’s the way this committee thinks. It’s not traditional win-loss thinking at all. If Auburn piles up victories against Georgia, Alabama and then Georgia again, then it would have a strong case. Would that closing run be better than Wisconsin beating Iowa, Michigan and the Big Ten East champion? It might be, in the committee’s view.
If that’s the case, then the playoff is heading down a slippery slope. Win-loss record has to matter. Auburn blew a 20-0 lead at LSU. Is there no penalty for that as teams heat up in November? Wisconsin has done nothing but win games. That’s what teams are supposed to do.
The underlying theme here is that at some point in the College Football Playoff, either the SEC or Big Ten — two of the three conferences that haven’t missed the playoff, along with the ACC – will miss out. The Big Ten is the conference that looks more likely to miss out unless the Badgers win out.
That’s why Alvarez launched a preemptive strike. If it really were to come down to undefeated Wisconsin and two-loss Auburn for that last spot — a scenario that’s unlikely but can’t be ruled out — then the committee should take the Badgers. Remember, no two-loss team has made the playoff yet. Wisconsin would have won a conference championship, too. We can debate whether the Big Ten or SEC is better all you want. It’s close.
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It shouldn’t be much of a debate, but this is a different era where wins accumulated look like they trump win-loss record. The committee has shown that each of the first two weeks. Wisconsin couldn’t predict its schedule this year any more than the grind it went through last year to get to Indianapolis. It shouldn’t be penalized for being 9-0.
Alvarez was on that committee when it started. He isn’t in the room now, but his voice still carries a lot of weight. McFarland’s points might seem outlandish on the surface, but Auburn will leap over Wisconsin if it beats Georgia. What, then, would happen over the next three weeks?
It would be close if the Tigers kept winning. It also would be “very difficult” to leave out an undefeated Power 5 conference champion in favor of a one-loss team or, especially, a two-loss team.
Who will the committee prove right?