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Wisconsin could be among those contending for a spot to grab the College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy this season.

Kirk Herbstreit calls Wisconsin CFP contender, where things stand at OLB, and more

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Today is Wednesday, May 3, and this is what’s for breakfast.

Are the Badgers a 2017 College Football Playoff contender?

Wisconsin lost three games in 2016 — all of which could have gone in its favor — and won the Cotton Bowl for the first time in program history. Now, with 15 starters returning from a team that won 11 games for the second time in three seasons, some think coach Paul Chryst’s team could challenge for a spot in the College Football Playoff in 2017. Add ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit to that group.

The Badgers were a late addition to Herbstreit’s list, as he named eight other teams with a shot before being asked specifically about Wisconsin. Among those he believes have a chance are two other Big Ten teams: Ohio State and Penn State.

But his inclusion of the Badgers is notable, as is his reasoning. Last season, everyone counted Wisconsin out because of its brutal schedule, even with returning 15 starters from the previous season when the team won 10 games.

Now, with the same number of returning starters, most everyone (including Herbstreit with his mention of Wisconsin being favored in every game) is suggesting a run can be made thanks in large part to the Badgers’ favorable schedule. Wisconsin doesn’t face the Buckeyes or Nittany Lions in the regular season, and hosts its crossover game against Michigan.

But while it’s natural to think that way, didn’t 2016 teach everyone a lesson about assuming something will be the same as it was the last time we saw it? Last season, LSU and Michigan State were shells of what they were the previous season, and Big Ten West favorite Iowa largely fell on its face.

All of that is to say we don’t know what Wisconsin will be this year. We just don’t. We can assume that replacing the four offensive players and three defensive players that are now on NFL rosters will be smooth, but that would be foolish — as would assuming a less-daunting schedule should make for an easy foray to another division title.

Could Wisconsin be in play for one of the four playoff spots come November and December? Sure. But there’s a lot more unknown than there is known at this point for the Badgers and the rest of the country, which makes comments such as Herbstreit’s interesting but largely irrelevant.

Where things stand: Outside linebackers

Wisconsin finished spring practice late in April, so we’re going through the roster taking a position-by-position look at where things stand, including at outside linebacker.

What happened: With 2016 starters Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt chasing their NFL dreams, the two outside linebacker spots were among the bigger questions entering spring. But with seniors Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs, junior college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel, and redshirt sophomore Zack Baun, the Badgers appear to have their answer to who will fill the voids in a key group in their 3-4 defense.

Biggest takeaway: Seniors are finally at home

Dooley and Jacobs have been on the move during their careers, with both spending time at three different positions. But each appears ready for big final seasons at outside linebacker, with Dooley coming off a strong junior campaign as the third wheel to Biegel and Watt, and Jacobs moving over from inside linebacker during the early part of spring.

Biggest question: How much can Wisconsin count on Van Ginkel, Baun and others?

Last season, outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar was more than comfortable using Dooley in a rotation with Biegel and Watt, while also giving Baun some time. Will he feel the same level of comfort with Van Ginkel and Baun this year? He certainly wants to, telling reporters during the spring that he’d like to rotate as much as possible to keep guys fresh. But he won’t do that if the gap between the starters and the second team is wide. That’ll be something he needs to figure out in fall camp.

To bowl or not to bowl?

One of the more heated debates in college football in recent months has centered on guys deciding not to play in their team’s bowl games to avoid the risk of injury in what they consider a meaningless final game before the NFL draft.

Former Wisconsin OT Ryan Ramczyk played in the Badgers’ bowl game despite needing surgery and still went in the first round. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Two of the higher-profile players to skip out last December — LSU RB Leonard Fournette and Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey — went in the top 10 of the draft Thursday. All-Big Ten TE Jake Butt fell all the way to the fifth round after injuring his right knee in Michigan’s Orange Bowl loss to Florida State.

The issue took on an added Big Ten feel on Tuesday when Penn State’s dynamic RB Saquon Barkley said he would consider sitting out the Nittany Lions’ bowl game this season.

For me, both sides of the argument — those upset with the kids not playing and those questioning why the kids would play — are pathetic. This isn’t that hard. Either the kid wants to play in the bowl game or he doesn’t. Either way, we should be OK with it.

Take Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk, for instance. Not only did the left tackle play in the Badgers’ Cotton Bowl victory over Western Michigan, he did so while knowing he’d need right hip surgery immediately after the season that potentially could impact his draft status. He felt like he’d be letting his teammates down if he didn’t play, but if he had undergone the surgery and not played, no one should have held it against him.

This is their life and their career. Every player should be able to decide what’s best for them without shade from either side of the argument being thrown at them.

Catching up