Michael Hickey/Getty Images
Wisconsin QB Alex Hornibrook has thrown 5 touchdowns and been intercepted 7 times in Big Ten play this season.

Wisconsin mailbag: Undefeated Badgers could miss football playoffs, favorite players to watch, diversifying offensive playbook

Jesse Temple

Have Wisconsin football, basketball or recruiting questions? We’ve got answers. Join us every Wednesday for the Land of 10 Wisconsin mailbag to talk all things Badgers. This week, we discuss whether an undefeated Wisconsin team misses the College Football Playoff, the impact of not having a mobile quarterback, offensive play calling, injuries, Alex Hornibrook’s interceptions and much more.

Question 1

Answer: Before the College Football Playoff rankings were announced, I would have said I find it hard to believe that Wisconsin could finish 13-0 and not make the four-team playoff. No undefeated Power 5 conference team has been left out of the playoff in the brief history of the CFP. My thinking was that there would be absolute pandemonium if a one-loss team — or multiple one-loss teams — crept into the playoff ahead of Wisconsin. What’s the reward for winning every game on the schedule if that happens? The Badgers opened the season ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, so it’s not like they’ve come from out of nowhere.

And then, I watched the CFP Top 25 announcement Tuesday night. Wisconsin opened at No. 9, and it’s clear the Badgers were punished because of their soft schedule and inability to dominate lesser opponents. The top 10 is as follows: 1. Georgia (8-0), 2. Alabama (8-0), 3. Notre Dame (7-1), 4. Clemson (7-1), 5. Oklahoma (7-1), 6. Ohio State (7-1), 7. Penn State (7-1), 8. TCU (7-1), 9. Wisconsin (8-0), 10. Miami (7-0). Six one-loss teams are ranked ahead of Wisconsin.

There is obviously a long way to go before we see the final playoff rankings, and the hope is that this will sort itself out. But the more I study the rankings, the more I see a path for an undefeated Wisconsin team to miss the playoffs. Alabama and Georgia are on a collision course for the SEC championship. The winner should earn one playoff spot. Is there a scenario in which Georgia loses but still earns a playoff berth? That would squeeze out another Power 5 conference champion.

Notre Dame will make the playoff by winning out. It appears that Clemson from the ACC and Oklahoma or TCU from the Big 12 would qualify as well. Oklahoma and TCU play each other Nov. 11 in a de facto playoff elimination game. Any of those teams needs to lose again, in my opinion, for Wisconsin to climb into the top four.

Wisconsin fans that I spoke to on social media Tuesday night didn’t seem all that surprised about the Badgers coming in at No. 9. I’m surprised there wasn’t at least a little more outrage. TCU just lost 14-7 at Iowa State. That’s the same Iowa State team that beat Oklahoma but has two losses to Iowa and 4-4 Texas. Texas, by the way, lost to Maryland. The Badgers beat the Terrapins 38-13.

And while we’re on the topic of transitive properties and comparing opponent wins and losses, I also have to point out that Clemson lost to Syracuse. I know Clemson has four wins against top-30 teams: Auburn, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. But Syracuse is 4-4 and lost 30-23 on Sept. 9 to Middle Tennessee. That Middle Tennessee team is 3-5 and lost 38-20 to Florida Atlantic. Wisconsin, by the way, beat Florida Atlantic 31-14 on Sept. 9.

I’m not saying the playoff committee got the rankings wrong. Perhaps Wisconsin could have been No. 8 over TCU, but that’s a minor quibble. It just seems that certain losses appear excusable, while Wisconsin is hammered for its less-than-pretty victories. Wisconsin still has upcoming games against Iowa and Michigan, which will help. So will a huge victory potentially against Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game.

Will it be enough for the Badgers to make the playoff? After watching the CFP rankings and laying out the scenarios, I can’t say that with certainty. And that is pretty crazy.

Question 2

Answer: Alex Hornibrook is not going to suddenly develop into a dual-threat quarterback. He has a total of minus-61 yards rushing this season, the result of taking sacks, and he isn’t a threat to escape the pocket. So if you’re looking for a highlight-reel running play from Hornibrook, you aren’t likely to find it.

It’s true that other title-contending teams have more mobile quarterbacks than Hornibrook. Miami QB Malik Rosier has 211 yards rushing with 2 touchdowns, Georgia QB Jake Fromm has 87 yards rushing with 3 touchdowns, Alabama QB Jalen Hurts has 572 yards rushing and 6 touchdowns, Clemson’s Kelly Bryant has 460 yards rushing and 7 touchdowns, Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett has 454 yards rushing and 5 touchdowns and Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush has 529 yards and 11 touchdowns. There is something to be said for a quarterback being multi-dimensional because it puts even more pressure on opposing defenses.

Still, that does not mean Wisconsin is incapable of vying for a championship. Wisconsin’s rushing attack, with a healthy Jonathan Taylor, is difficult to handle. The Badgers also have enough pass-catching options to at least try to keep defenses honest. It’s up to Hornibrook to deliver more consistently in that area for the Badgers to have a chance.

Question 3

Answer: Wisconsin’s coaching staff certainly will have to add some new wrinkles to the playbook if teams continue to load the box. The jet sweep play really hasn’t gone for big yardage, particularly with defenses so committed to the run. There are always plays a staff keeps in the back pocket, so perhaps there is more trickery to be seen.

Take, for example, that great backward pass to left tackle Michael Deiter, which went for a 4-yard touchdown run against Illinois on Saturday. I doubt there are many more plays designed for an offensive lineman, but we’ll see what the coaches have in store. If Wisconsin can develop a more consistent passing attack, it will open everything up for the Badgers. They have the playmakers to do it with Troy Fumagalli, Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and now Kendric Pryor. It’s a matter of putting it all together.

Question 4

Answer: For sheer entertainment value, I would pick running back Melvin Gordon on offense. The things he accomplished in 2014 were unbelievable. Watching him gallop his way to 408 yards against Nebraska ― in three quarters, no less ― is among the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen. I’ll never forget that game, when the student section began chanting “MEL-VIN GOR-DON” over and over, and it spread throughout the stadium. By the end of the game, the field was covered in snow and teammates were performing snow angels on the ground. Gordon’s 258-yard, 3-touchdown Outback Bowl performance was pretty spectacular, too. That’s a heck of a way to close out a college career.

As a backup offensive pick, I’d have to take quarterback Russell Wilson. That 2011 team was the first one I covered on the Wisconsin beat. And it was clear then that Wilson possessed a certain charisma and skill level that you didn’t see everyday. I don’t know if we’ll ever see a season by a Wisconsin quarterback like the one Wilson had for the Badgers. I mean, 33 touchdowns and 4 interceptions? That’s ridiculous.

It’s probably tougher for me to single out a specific defensive player, but I like a good pass-rushing, sack-making outside linebacker as much as anybody. The combination of T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel last season was pretty special. I really enjoyed covering Biegel, whose passion for Wisconsin was evident every game. I got to spend time with his parents at the Biegel family cranberry marsh in Wisconsin Rapids last fall. Sometimes, it’s more enjoyable to watch players that you form relationships with on the beat because you have a better sense of where they come from and what they’re playing for out there.

Question 5

Answer: I definitely think there’s something to the fact that Wisconsin’s health issues have contributed to the inconsistency on offense. It’s certainly not the only reason, but it has to be a factor. Wisconsin has played with only three scholarship wide receivers in the last two games because Jazz Peavy, Danny Davis and George Rushing were sidelined with injuries. Not having running back Jonathan Taylor for the second half against Illinois certainly impacted the offensive rhythm. Tight end Troy Fumagalli missed a game with an injury, and several offensive linemen have battled health issues all season. It’s really a credit to this team the way it has withstood so many injuries on both sides of the ball to remain undefeated. I wrote about how Wisconsin has managed to persevere from injuries on Monday, and you can check out that story here.

As for Bradrick Shaw, yes, something does seem to be lacking with him. I do wonder how much the right leg injury he sustained in the season opener against Utah State has impacted his performance. He did not play in Week 2 against Florida Atlantic, was used sparingly against BYU and hasn’t been the same since. He told me several weeks ago that he was nearing 100 percent health, but any tackle could cause a setback. Since his season-opening 84-yard performance, Shaw hasn’t rushed for more than 43 yards in a game. He is averaging only 3.8 yards per carry one season after averaging 5.2 yards. Wisconsin will need him at his best down the stretch, particularly if Taylor isn’t fully healthy.

Question 6

Answer: This is one of the most important questions relating to Wisconsin’s College Football Playoff chances. And at this stage, the answer remains a mystery. The Badgers’ defense has been solid for much of the season and routinely has bailed out the offense for mistakes. Alex Hornibrook has thrown at least 1 interception in each of Wisconsin’s first five Big Ten games. He has 5 touchdowns and 7 interceptions in those games.

It hasn’t really mattered so far against lesser foes. But that’s not going to be good enough for Wisconsin to beat, say, Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game. Wisconsin can’t be a one-dimensional offense that simply hands the ball off to its running backs every play. More and more teams are going to stack the box and dare Hornibrook to beat them through the air.

He has the talent to make teams pay. But he still has to demonstrate the consistency necessarily for the Badgers to be a championship-caliber team.

Question 7

Answer: I haven’t seen a ton of Aleem Ford, but he appears to be lagging behind several players when it comes to earning frontcourt minutes for Wisconsin. The Red-White scrimmage is not the end-all, be-all for how things will shake out. But Ford wasn’t heard from much in the game. He played 24 minutes and scored 3 points with 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 3 turnovers and 4 fouls.

Wisconsin knows exactly what it will get with Ethan Happ in the frontcourt. But after that, it’s a bit of a mystery. Andy Van Vliet figures to start alongside Happ. But the Badgers need contributions from Charlie Thomas and Alex Illikainen. Freshman center Nate Reuvers doesn’t seem to be quite ready to contribute yet, which is perfectly fine. Most freshmen need time to develop. Ford could be on the fringe of earning minutes, but there is ample opportunity to play if he can prove he deserves to be on the court.

Question 8

Answer: There seems to be a consensus, at least among those who cover Big Ten basketball, that the top 4 league teams have separated themselves from the rest of the pack. In a preseason vote of 28 beat writers from around the Big Ten, Michigan State was the unanimous pick to win the conference, followed by Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern. Wisconsin was picked to finish seventh.

Each of the top 4 teams is loaded with talent and experience. Michigan State’s Miles Bridges bypassed the NBA draft to return to school, making the Spartans a national title contender. Purdue’s Isaac Haas and Vincent Edwards return for their senior seasons, Minnesota brings back four starters and Northwestern should be even better one season after reaching its first NCAA tournament in school history.

Of course, the Badgers have finished in the top 4 of the Big Ten in each of the last 16 seasons. The rational side of me completely understands why Wisconsin is picked so low. Wisconsin returns only one starter with forward Ethan Happ. Point guard D’Mitrik Trice started two games in place of an injured Bronson Koenig last season. Only three players on the roster averaged more than 2.2 points per game ― Happ, Trice and Khalil Iverson. To expect a bunch of unproven players to finish in the top 4 of a league this difficult is a really tall task.

On the other hand, I can’t count Wisconsin out of the top group until I see it happen. Maybe the Badgers get on a hot streak to close the regular season and earn a five-way tie for fourth to keep the streak alive. Stranger things have happened.

Have a question about Wisconsin football or basketball? Tweet us @Landof10Badgers and we’ll try to answer your question in a future mailbag. Check to see if your question already was answered by reading previous Wisconsin mailbags here.