MADISON, Wis. ― Garret Dooley was in a team meeting Tuesday night. Chris Orr was involved in a tutoring session. Olive Sagapolu didn’t even know a College Football Playoff rankings show was being broadcast.
If you want to know what members of Wisconsin’s team were doing during the release of the first playoff poll, the behavior of those three players is a pretty good place to start. Perhaps Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard summed it up best.
“I wasn’t sitting there with my popcorn or anything,” Leonhard said. “The biggest thing is it doesn’t really matter at this point.”
Despite being undefeated, Wisconsin came in at No. 9 in the initial playoff ranking and trailed six teams that have suffered one loss. Unbeaten Georgia and Alabama were ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, followed by one-loss teams Notre Dame, Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Penn State and TCU. Wisconsin and Miami rounded out the top 10.
The biggest gripe about Wisconsin from the 13-person playoff committee is the Badgers’ soft strength of schedule. Kirby Hocutt, the CFP committee chairman, said Wisconsin’s schedule was “just not there.” According to the Sagarin Ratings, Wisconsin’s schedule strength ranks No. 69. Through eight games, the only teams Wisconsin has played that have a winning record are Florida Atlantic and Northwestern. And the Badgers haven’t been particularly dominant in most of their victories.
“Obviously I was a little surprised that we were at nine,” Dooley said. “I didn’t expect us to be in the top 4 just because of the strength of schedule that we’ve had so far. But we have four, hopefully five games left of the season. I just think that you can’t look too much into that stuff. As long as people make sure that our head is on straight every single week, I think we can keep taking care of business and good things are going to happen at the end of the year.”
College Football Playoff top 10
|1. Georgia||8-0||Sagarin strength of schedule: 51|
|2. Alabama||8-0||Sagarin strength of schedule: 55|
|3. Notre Dame||7-1||Sagarin strength of schedule: 12|
|4. Clemson||7-1||Sagarin strength of schedule: 4|
|5. Oklahoma||7-1||Sagarin strength of schedule: 28|
|6. Ohio State||7-1||Sagarin strength of schedule: 37|
|7. Penn State||7-1||Sagarin strength of schedule: 24|
|8. TCU||7-1||Sagarin strength of schedule: 46|
|9. Wisconsin||8-0||Sagarin strength of schedule: 69|
|10. Miami||8-0||Sagarin strength of schedule: 44|
Wisconsin players and coaches aren’t oblivious to what’s being said about them at this stage of the season. But Orr reminded reporters Wednesday that no team had even won its division title and that it was far too early to consider the Badgers’ place in the polls.
“We had a speaker come in and talk to us a couple weeks ago talking about not looking ahead,” Sagapolu said. “Things are there for you to go get, but what matters is what’s in front of you and what’s the task at hand? And the task at hand this week is Indiana, so we look forward to that.”
Wisconsin (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) plays at Indiana (3-5, 0-5) at 11 a.m. CT Saturday in a game that won’t do much to enhance the Badgers’ strength of schedule. Indiana ranks No. 51, according to the Sagarin Ratings, and is 0-4 against top-30 teams. But a Badgers blowout could be what they need to begin convincing the playoff committee that they’re a team to be reckoned with down the stretch.
Wisconsin will play two top-30 teams in consecutive weeks at home against Iowa and Michigan. And there is the Big Ten title game looming, which potentially could be against No. 6 Ohio State.
Leonhard played safety on the last Wisconsin team to start the season with at least eight consecutive victories, when the Badgers opened the 2004 campaign at 9-0. But that Wisconsin team lost its final three games of the season to Michigan State, Iowa and then to Georgia in the Outback Bowl. Leonhard noted the more the team wins, the more difficult it will be to avoid talk about the Badgers and their national title hopes.
“It’s easy to learn lessons when you lose because it hurts,” he said. “But you have to be able to learn the same lessons when you’re winning in order to avoid the next one.”
Orr said the mindset of the team was that if Wisconsin continued to win, everything would take care of itself. But the possibility remains that a 13-0 Badgers team could still somehow be left out of the four-team playoff.
Alabama and Georgia are headed toward a seismic clash in the SEC Championship Game. If Georgia falters in a close game that serves as the Bulldogs’ only loss, it’s possible two SEC teams could qualify for the playoff, which would knock out another Power 5 conference champion.
Notre Dame already has three victories against top-30 teams and can secure a playoff spot by winning its last four regular-season games, which includes a huge Nov. 11 matchup against undefeated Miami. Clemson is 4-0 against top-30 foes and also would likely qualify by winning out. The same could be said for either Oklahoma or TCU, which play each other Nov. 11. Miami could leapfrog Wisconsin as well, given its difficult upcoming schedule.
“The biggest thing is we can’t change that,” Leonhard said. “We don’t have a voice in that room necessarily that you can say, ‘Oh, look what we’ve done.’ They’re going to hash that all out. As a team, you win. Go undefeated and let them fight about it, whatever it is. You’ve just got to handle your business week in and week out.
“The one thing you see, college football is crazy. Things happen every week. Somebody is getting beat. You’ve just got to focus your guys so you’re not one of those teams.”
So, when will the Badgers start paying attention to the playoff rankings?
“When the regular season is over,” Orr said. “I think that’s when it’ll matter.”
The Badgers can only hope the committee is paying attention to them by then.