The Wisconsin Badgers elevation in the Big Ten has seen their status rise in the last half-decade. In 2014, nine to 10 wins in a season were seen as relatively successful for Bucky. Throughout their history, the Badgers have been seen as good, but just not quite good enough to get to the top. Often good, but never elite has been the perception. While consistency is nice, a low ceiling is not. Today, we look to answer a question, is Wisconsin a sneaky playoff contender in 2020?
Is Wisconsin a sneaky playoff contender in 2020?
Fast forward six years and the bar has been raised
In that time span, Wisconsin has reached the Big Ten Championship game three of the last four years. On top of that, they’ve been in a New Years Six Bowl three of the last four years, winning two of them. This program has notably stepped up a tier in performance, and talent. Recruiting by head coach Paul Chryst has been spectacular by Madison’s standards. Chryst has capitalized on recent success bringing in some of the best classes in program history. Match that with the coveted development prized by the Wisconsin coaching staff and you have yourself a roster fully ready to compete at the highest level.
Now, the college football world is beginning to notice. ESPN recently came out with an article detailing the Football Power Index (FPI). This article details who will have the best chance at making the CFB Playoff next season. It begins with the first three being veterans of the playoff, Clemson, Ohio State, and Alabama. However, the third one happens to be a bit of a shocker.
Wisconsin, according to the FPI, has a 33.5% chance to make the playoff. This may come as a shock to some, as the Badgers are losing several significant contributors from a season ago. Key players like Jonathan Taylor, Zack Baun, Tyler Biadasz, Quintez Cephus, and Chris Orr will all have to be replaced.
The remainder of this article will take a look at key determining factors if this team has a chance to make the College Football Playoff. They will range from key returning players, new impact players, scheduling, as well as recruiting the past few seasons. Ultimately, we will see if the Badgers have what it takes, at least on paper, to be a sneaky playoff contender for the 2020 season.
As mentioned earlier, the Badgers are essentially losing five of their best players from a season ago. Undoubtedly, players will fill new roles and raise their game to a new level. The question remains though in terms of how well these roles will be filled. So who are some of the key returnees that can fill the exodus of talent on the field?
First up is Burrell, the hybrid safety who is entering his final year in Madison. The senior to be had a career year this past season with a career-high in virtually every defensive stat. His best work came as the season progressed, and it can be assumed he will carry that high caliber play into this season. A playmaker on the defensive side of the ball, Burrell will serve as the leader on the defense and anchor an already strong secondary.
The junior joins a long lineage of Badger linebackers of recent years who will take the reigns of the front seven. Sanborn, who led the team in tackles, also played his best ball down the stretch. If this defense and this team want to be a playoff contender, Sanborn will have a lot to do with it. He’s not as athletic as most modern inside linebackers, but his football savvy allows him to be one step ahead of opposing offenses. Look for Sanborn to have an All Big Ten caliber season.
Obviously, Coan is on this list. The senior quarterback was one of the most efficient passers in the country last season. Gone will be his stud tailback and top wide receiver. In the upcoming season, Coan will have to prove that he can be more than your average Wisconsin game managing quarterback. He showed flashes throughout the season. If he puts it all together, this team will have untapped potential offensively. If not, Graham Mertz will be waiting in the wings for Badger fans to salivate over.
Expecting anyone to replicate what Taylor did as a Wisconsin Badger is just unreasonable. Unfortunately for Watson, he will hear comparisons leading up to the season just about every day. With that being said, someone has to fill the hole left by Taylor, and Watson has the inside track to get the first crack. He has shown flashes of power and speed which blend nicely with his size. At six feet and hovering around 230 pounds, his burst off the line of scrimmage is noticeably quick. The workload in the backfield may be split between Watson and a variety of others (see later), but if he can build on his decent redshirt freshman season, Chryst’s crew will do just fine in a post-Taylor era.
New Impact Players
This may come as a surprise to some, but there are reasons to believe he’s the next great Badger pass rusher. With the loss of Baun, someone is going to have to step up. So why not Franklin? He has all the measurables and showed well on special teams and in quick cameo appearances. This is a bit of a shot in the dark, but he has the quick twitch needed to succeed at the position.
The Badgers return game took a huge leap forward in 2019. However, that is all in peril now with the transfer of Aron Cruickshank. Look for Guerendo with his blazing speed to try and fill that spot. On top of that, he could feature in some wildcat action too as similar to Cruickshank’s role last season.
The biggest factor in Wisconsin being a sneaky playoff contender may just well be the schedule. Gone from the schedule is Ohio State, along with Penn State. Not facing either of them is critical in maintaining hopes for a perfect regular season.
However, that’s about where their luck runs out.
There’s a three-game stretch in the middle of the season where the Badgers face Notre Dame at Lambeau, travel to Michigan, and host Minnesota. If they get through this stretch with one loss or less, they have a chance to find themselves in the Big Ten title game with a trip to the playoff on the line. However, as we’ve seen in seasons past, you cannot afford to take anyone on the schedule lightly.
We’ll take a look at recruiting as we continue to answer the question, Is Wisconsin a sneaky playoff contender in 2020? Look at the teams who’ve made the playoff over the years. Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and LSU most notably. What do they have in common? Recruiting.
Year after year these schools are in the top 10 in recruiting, and the results on the field show. Yes, three-star players when developed can prove to be great players. But, especially in this day and age, recruiting high caliber talent matters if you want to make the playoff. Moreover, of the past 17 national champions, 14 have had an average recruiting class rank in the top 10.
However, the question at the beginning of the article isn’t if Wisconsin can win the playoff but make it. Teams like Washington and Michigan State who have a more similar makeup recruiting wise to the Badgers, have both made it. Add in that the Badgers have seen an uptick in recruiting talent under Chryst, and this team certainly has elevated their talent enough to make a run. Coupling in highly-rated recruits like Jalen Berger, Logan Brown, and the previously mentioned Mertz, this will only help that cause.
Asking if Wisconsin is a playoff contender is a complex and multi-faceted question. Can the Badgers make the College Football Playoff this season? It will be based upon a multitude of factors. Who’s returning, who’s primed to break out, how the schedule plays out, and how recruiting has been the last few years. However, Wisconsin has been in this position before and we’ve seen how it played out (looking at you 2018). However, the experience gained by many on this roster going through that season should prove fruitful for the roster as a whole. This team has the ingredients for a playoff appearance. Is it enough to answer is Wisconsin a sneaky playoff contender in 2020?