While the coronavirus pandemic led the Big Ten to adjust its 2020 schedule, the delayed start hasn't stopped preseason expectations from coming to fruition. Once again, Wisconsin is the prime challenger to league favorite Ohio State.
However, the route to this familiar spot required a three-week detour. Wisconsin has only played two games because of a coronavirus outbreak within the program. The school—which publicly confirmed 27 cases in an early November press release—rightfully paused the season immediately after it began.
The stoppage cast a cloud of uncertainty on what the team may have a chance to accomplish in 2020. Between hosting Illinois on Oct. 23 and traveling to Michigan last weekend, Wisconsin canceled games with Nebraska and Purdue.
But the Badgers are back. And they look excellent.
Despite a very limited sample, Wisconsin has demanded College Football Playoff attention in those two victories. The earliest returns are incredibly promising.
As always, consider the competition. Illinois has struggled more than expected, and Michigan is a downright disaster. Wisconsin won both games by 38 points.
The reason it's notable, though, is Wisconsin rarely wins so handily over Big Ten competition. During the last three seasons, the Badgers notched 21 conference victories, yet defeated only four opponents by 28-plus points—let alone 38. Margin of victory is not indicative of future wins, but it can help reveal a team's upside.
Unsurprisingly, defense is driving the team's success. That, along with a powerful offensive line, is the program's identity.
Wisconsin surrendered just 16.9 points per game in 2019 and has ceded only 11 points in two contests so far (Illinois scored its only touchdown on a fumble recovery). Illinois and Michigan finished with 218 and 219 yards, respectively.
What has regularly crushed the Badgers on the biggest stage—specifically the Big Ten Championship Game—however, is a scoring attack that simply isn't dangerous enough.
Head coach Paul Chryst is an underrated offensive mind. Some coaches seemingly pick plays at random, but Chryst actually runs an offense. While the foundation is power-run schemes, he mixes in jet sweeps and misdirection while setting up play-action passes (and screens, lots of screens).
Nevertheless, a power-run emphasis—even as the offense has modern elements—is an easy target when it fails in today's spread-dominated era. And sometimes, deservedly so.
But a great quarterback makes an enormous difference.
After two appearances, Graham Mertz isn't suddenly the best quarterback in the country. He's a tremendous fit for what the Badgers want to accomplish, though.
It's true Wisconsin hasn't needed Mertz to push the ball downfield. Through two games, the degree of difficulty on his attempts is generally low. When you can throw the ball five yards and still pick up 15, there's nothing wrong with taking what the defense gives you. And in lopsided games, quarterbacks aren't launching deep passes.
Still, discounting his clean footwork, calm presence and near-impeccable decision-making would be foolish. Mertz's confidence, command and arm talent are obvious—and have translated to 8.7 yards per attempt with seven touchdowns and zero turnovers.
If he sustains this level of performance, the Badgers will finish the six-game regular season unbeaten. Sure, it's half of a normal year, but they play at 4-0 Northwestern, host 4-0 Indiana and travel to Iowa after having two weeks of practice disrupted midseason. That's no small accomplishment.
And it would put Wisconsin on the brink of the CFP.
A final conference victory has eluded the Badgers, who have four losses in the Big Ten title game during the six-year CFP era. Plus, as consistent as the program has been, only in 2017 did Wisconsin truly have a CFP chance when the 12-0 Badgers fell to Ohio State. The team entered the other Big Ten Championship Games (2014, 2016, 2019) at 10-2 each time.
Oddly enough—yet in perfect "2020" fashion—Wisconsin might only need to keep it close in Indianapolis.
At this point in the season, two of the four CFP spots are effectively sealed. The ACC should send its champion (Notre Dame or Clemson), and Alabama is the SEC favorite over Florida. If you project Ohio State to win the Big Ten, that's three.
But if Notre Dame loses to North Carolina and/or is destroyed by a Trevor Lawrence-led Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, the Irish would have a less compelling case. The Big 12 is an Oklahoma State loss away from each of its programs having two-plus letdowns, and the Pac-12—with a similar six-plus-one schedule to Wisconsin, potentially—might not finish with an unbeaten team.
You may be convinced an undefeated Cincinnati or BYU deserves a CFP spot, and that's a relevant discussion. But nobody can say with certainty it will happen. Every year, the CFP selection committee favors one-loss Power Five teams to unbeaten Group of Five schools. Like it or not, that's the committee's preference.
Without question, the Badgers' optimal playoff path is beating Ohio State for the conference crown to cap a 7-0 record. That would leave no room for argument about the team's merit.
Unlike years past, however, Wisconsin has multiple routes to the playoff. If the Badgers thrive in the regular season with a hyped quarterback and elite defense, they'll be in the top-four discussion all the way to Selection Day.