UPDATE: Here’s the full CFP rankings.
The Wisconsin Badgers have got a mountain to climb to snatch a slot in the 2016 College Football Playoff — but at least one part of their resume figures to give them a serious leg up in the process.
The first CFP rankings are due out at 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday (ESPN), ushering in months of bar arguments from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Walla Walla, Wash. And yet the one thing that isn’t up for rational discussion — and, granted, we know “rational” isn’t germane when college football is on the table — is which program had the roughest path over the last nine weeks to get here.
Among the top 16 teams in stats guru Jeff Sagarin’s latest NCAA football ratings, only one school, 3-5 Ole Miss, is toting a strength of schedule ranked higher (No. 1) than Wisconsin (No. 3). The No. 8 Badgers (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) have played five schools with top 10 rankings, the most in any season in program history, and beaten three of them in the same year — LSU (now No. 15), Michigan State and Nebraska (now No. 9) — for another first. Wisconsin’s opponents have a combined record of 43-21 (.672).
The Badgers are considered by most to be the best two-loss team in the FBS pool right now, given that their only setbacks were at the hands of No. 2 Michigan (8-0, 5-0) on the road, 14-7 on Oct. 1, and at home to No. 6 Ohio State by a 30-23 score in overtime on Oct. 15.
The selection committee is expected to look at least somewhat favorably on Wisconsin’s resume relative to its peers. The Badgers have already beaten fellow two-loss team LSU head to head, and have a tougher Sagarin strength of schedule rank than 6-2 Auburn (No. 9), 6-2 Oklahoma (No. 22), 6-2 Virginia Tech (No. 40), 7-1 Louisville (No. 52), 7-1 Texas A&M (No. 23) or 5-3 Florida State (No. 4).
The top four teams in the rankings will meet in one of two semifinals played in Atlanta or Glendale, Ariz. The semifinal winners would then advance to the national championship game on Jan. 9 in Tampa.
More than a few dominoes have to fall for Wisconsin to jump some of the teams expected to be ranked ahead of them. But the primary domino is a West Division title that warrants the Badgers a shot at a rematch with either Michigan or No. 6 Ohio State in the Big Ten championship at Indianapolis on Dec. 3.
Wisconsin moved from No. 11 to No. 8 in the latest Associated Press poll after defeating No. 9 Nebraska in overtime last weekend, 23-17. The Badgers moved a game closer to the Huskers (7-1, 4-1) in the Big Ten standings and into a four-way tie for second with Minnesota (6-2, 3-2), Iowa (5-3, 3-2) and Northwestern (4-4, 3-2).
Coach Paul Chryst’s crew takes on the Wildcats Saturday afternoon (noon ET, ABC) in Evanston. Wisconsin hasn’t won at Ryan Field since 1999, a lull made even more remarkable by the fact that:
Wisconsin has won at every other Big Ten stadium at least once since its last victory at Northwestern in 1999.
— Zach Heilprin (@ZachHeilprin) October 31, 2016
Because in order to make a compelling case that you’re the best two-loss team in the land, the first trick is making sure you don’t somehow wind up with a seat at the three-loss table along the way.