UNLV, Oregon St, Northern Illinois, and South Dakota.
The murders row that Wisconsin lined up ahead of its Big 10 Conference schedule is one of the reasons that the Badgers are on the outside looking in when it comes to being a true contender for the BCS National Championship Game on January 9th in New Orleans.
Wisconsin has done everything it could to draw attention away from the names of those opponents, winning all four games by a combined score of 194-34. While they may be one of the best teams in the country (it’s hard to argue that fact actually), no obscene margin of victory is going to disguise the pitiful job of scheduling competitive games that Coach Bret Bielema and Wisconsin have done.
Scheduling poorly out of conference is a time honored tradition among powerhouse teams in college football, particularly in the upper crust, where a single loss can all but eliminate you from contending for the national title. However, there’s a line where scheduling gently crosses into scheduling disgracefully. This is a line that Wisconsin has crossed, as most of the elite teams will schedule at least one respectable (if not elite) non-conference opponent to avoid what the Badgers are about to go through.
For example, Alabama does not generally schedule very ambitiously, but since Nick Saban took over in 2007, the Tide have scheduled at least one game against a ranked non-conference game in all but his first year (Clemson, Virginia Tech, Penn St. twice), when Saban had no input on the schedule. Saban’s scheduling doesn’t serve as an example of what all powerhouse teams do, but a fair number do follow this formula.
In some cases schools will even acknowledge an embarrassing game as then-Florida coach Urban Meyer did in 2009, when his team lined up against hapless FCS school Charleston Southern, a game in which the top ranked Gators were 73 point favorites (!!). Meyer apologized to the fans for the scheduling of the game, and then proceeded to club his lower tier opponent, 62-3.
However, Wisconsin has made no apologies for its scheduling, and has consistently scheduled poor non-conference teams. Since Bielema took over for Barry Alvarez in 2006, the Badgers have scheduled a grand total of one ranked team in non-conference play. In 2008, the Badgers defeated then-No. 21 Fresno St., 13-10. The Bulldogs would go on to finish just 7-5 that year. That means, in the past six years, the Badgers have played just one ranked team in 24 games outside the Big 10.
Now, to be fair, Wisconsin will likely get some help in the next few weeks. Michigan St., Penn St., and Illinois are all still ranked and all still on the schedule. There’s also the matter of the inaugural Big 10 Championship Game in December, which would potentially be another ranked opponent for the Badgers to play.
Should the team run the table, it will most certainly leapfrog Boise St., who is likely to continue fading into obscurity as it delves deeper into its conference schedule, barring utter chaos above them. The team will also likely jump the losers of the two pseudo-semi final games that are on tap when No. 1 LSU meets No. 2 Alabama on November 5th, and then on December 3rd where No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 4 Oklahoma St. will tangle in Stillwater.
That would leave Wisconsin as an undefeated Big 10 Champion, but potentially staring at a computer showdown with (for arguments sake) Oklahoma and LSU to decide who plays for the national championship, a showdown the Badgers would most definitely lose.
LSU scheduled a staggeringly ambitious non-conference schedule that included a road game with potential Big East Champion West Virginia and a neutral site game against fellow pre-season Top 5 opponent Oregon. Coupled with a grueling SEC schedule that would include a win over another highly ranked opponent (Alabama), the Tigers would be a lock to make the title game.
Oklahoma on the other hand followed the more typical non-conference scheduling theory by playing against a single upper tier team (pre-season No. 5 Florida St.) on the road, and scheduling lightly otherwise. That one game (regardless of the Seminoles current predicament), coupled with a strong Big 12 schedule would likely be enough to vault them into the title game with LSU, leaving the Badgers with a well deserved return trip to the Rose Bowl against Oregon, Stanford, or Arizona St.
I fully acknowledge that scheduling out of conference can often be a difficult task. There’s a certain balance that must be struck in order to schedule effectively. Without a universal system for conference scheduling (some conferences play eight conference games, others play nine), not everybody has the same dates available every season. On top of that, you also don’t want to consistently be playing upper tier teams on the road, a return game at your home stadium is worth big money, but not everyone is willing to work out a home and home schedule in back to back years. Essentially, you have to work with what is available to you.
However, I refuse to believe that in six years Wisconsin hasn’t been able to find a ranked major conference opponent that would be willing to visit Camp Randall in a home/away agreement. It’s even more implausible that the Badgers haven’t been approached by ESPN during that same timeframe about playing in one of the annual season kickoff games against a highly ranked opponent at a neutral site (see: LSU vs. Oregon, Boise St. vs. Virginia Tech, etc) in a one game series.
This particular Wisconsin team might be the best the school has ever had. They have a punishing ground game behind running back Montee Ball, their typically elite defense, and they even have an elite quarterback this year in North Carolina St. transfer Russell Wilson. A lot can still happen, but barring chaos at the top of the rankings; it looks like the Badgers will be spending New Years in Pasadena again. It’s certainly nothing to sneeze at, but when they turn on the TV a week later for the National Championship Game, they could be left to wonder, what if?