Every Friday, Inside NU will do a “Take Two,” giving you our opinions on a major topic surrounding Northwestern or college sports in general. Today, we admittedly submit to pre-playoff hype and select our "2012 Big Ten playoff participants." More on the specifics below. Click here for last week's edition.
The recent approval of a seeded, four-team playoff model promises a future without biased polls, faulty computer formulas and a general consensus that college football didn’t produce a legitimate, deserving champion—among other nonsensical, outdated rules, regulations and BCS intricacies that, beginning in 2014, will no longer exist. Most fans are happy with the new system, or at least somewhat more at ease now that the BCS has met its demise. The problem going forward arises out of impatience, the inevitable frustration over two more college football seasons under the illegitimate, corrupt rule of BCS power brokers and decision makers.
During that span, as the playoff-less postseason continues its lamentable existence, predicting and seeding four playoff participants is an exercise in futility, but it is nonetheless an exceedingly captivating endeavor, and one that we will take on in this news-bereft, late June Friday morning. More specifically, we will focus on choosing one Big Ten team who, if the playoff model were to go into effect this season, rather than in 2014, would have the best shot at qualifying.
Remember, this is all speculation, so don’t put too much stock into our designated “playoff-bound” teams.
Take 1: Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn)
In most cases, qualifying for the Rose Bowl in consecutive seasons would be an unqualified success. Yet the Badgers have squandered their two most recent trips to Pasadena, losing by a combined seven points to TCU (2011) and Oregon (2012), and some are beginning to question their legitimacy as one of the nation’s truly elite programs. Though Coach Bret Bielema’s bruising, run-heavy style has been effective against conference opponents, the Badgers have looked slower, less prepared and decidedly outmatched against their faster, more athletic opponents in the Rose.
Since we’re going off regular season, and not postseason success, in choosing this year’s Big Ten “playoff participant”, worrying about the Badgers’ next Rose Bowl slip-up won’t serve me well in this exercise; analyzing what they’ve done in the regular season over the past two seasons will. While their recent Bowl track record fails to impress, Wisconsin’s regular season dominance of late is quite remarkable. Bielema’s bunch has lost three conference games in the past two seasons, two of those on desperation, last-minute hail maries, despite being the superior team in each contest. It’s no stretch to say that this year’s team, which returns All-conference talent at multiple positions, will avoid the mental breakdowns that tarnished its otherwise sterling regular season resumés and extend the Badgers’ consecutive conference championship streak by becoming the Big Ten’s first playoff participant.
Before delving into personnel specifics, one important topic must be discussed: schedule strength. A college football team’s schedule largely dictates its win-loss record, especially for Big Ten teams who play half of their league slate in hostile road environments that so often frustrate, perplex and puzzle opposing teams. This fundamental truth, perhaps more than anything else, is why I believe Wisconsin will emerge as the Big Ten’s playoff participant. The Badgers will coast through their nonconference schedule, with the possibility, albeit highly unlikely, of a week 2 slip-up at Oregon State. Their conference schedule couldn’t be more generous, with home games against Ohio State and Michigan State, while their toughest road tests—at Nebraska (Sept 29), at Purdue (Oct 13) and at Penn State (Nov 24)—are conveniently separated, easily-winnable games. The problem with this schedule-centric analysis is the lack of clarity on the specific criteria for the playoff selection committee, which may ultimately penalize the Badgers for their soft nonconference schedule.
As far as talent goes, the Badgers have more than perhaps any other Big Ten team. It starts with running back Montee Ball, whose 137.4 rushing average and 39 touchdowns led the Big Ten in 2011. Jared Abrederis, last year’s leading receiver, is one of the league’s quickest, most explosive players and forms a nice complement to big play threats like Marquis Mason and Chase Hammond. Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien takes over at quarterback after Russell Wilson’s uber-successful one-year stint running the offense. If O’Brien plays the way he did as a freshman for the Terps, the offense will flourish. As always, the Badgers’ line is loaded with size, depth and future NFL talent. On defense, linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor are tackling machines, versatile pass defenders and ferocious pass rushers. The secondary remains stout despite the loss of safety Aaron Henry and cornerback Antonio Fenelus.
With layers of talent on both sides of the ball and a favorable schedule, the only obstacle standing between the Badgers and a playoff birth is themselves. If they can play sound, fundamental Badger-style football, this team will beat out each of its Big Ten rivals.
Take 2: Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
In order to make it to a four-team playoff, teams will almost certainly have to go 11-1, or possibly 10-2 if they're lucky, so this is predicated on the fact that any Big Ten team can get to 11-1. For what it's worth, I don't see any Big Ten team finishing with just one loss this season, but for this argument's sake I'll go with the team that I think will be the closest — Michigan.
While most of the conference is rebuilding this season, or at least replacing key parts, the Wolverines are loaded, with Denard Robinson, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Roy Roundtree returning on the league's most potent offense and eight starters returning on what was one of the most improved defenses in the country in 2011. Robinson catches a lot of flack for his throwing motion, but his skill as a playmaker is undeniable, and with another summer under his belt, his throwing ability should improve. He'll be in the Heisman Trophy conversation once again, and this time it will likely be for longer than the first month of the season. Toussaint is one of the most underrated running backs in the Big Ten — Robinson gets most of the credit in the running game — and is a nice complement to his quarterback for Michigan's ground game. Defensively, UM could struggle up front because star defensive end Craig Roh is all that returns on the defensive line, but the back seven is loaded and will make this defense one of the best in the conference — a miracle if you think back to how terrible it was just two years ago.
However, we also have to take into account Michigan's schedule, which could be both a blessing and a curse. Strength of schedule will likely be taken into account by the selection committee, so the Wolverines have that going for them. The non-conference slate is extremely difficult, as UM faces Alabama in Arlington, Texas, gets Air Force at home in a game that won't be a gimme and travels to Notre Dame. In the conference schedule, the Wolverines must travel to Nebraska and Ohio State and they play Michigan State and Iowa at home, teams that they haven't beaten since 2007 and 2006, respectively. If UM could get through that slate with one loss, its strength of schedule would easily put it in the discussion for a spot in the playoff. However, it certainly would be an uphill battle.
As tough as the non-conference slate is, the Wolverines have a decent chance at coming out of it undefeated. Obviously the game against Alabama will be tough, but the Crimson Tide are a very young team and the inexperienced defense could struggle against the versatile Denard Robinson. Games at Notre Dame are always tough, but the Fighting Irish are a mess right now and seem destined for yet another year stuck in mediocrity. Plus, UM has a tendency to start out the season strong and fade — at least a little bit — later in the year. That leaves the conference slate, where the Wolverines would have to go 3-1 — not an impossible feat, but certainly difficult.
Personally, I see Michigan finishing 10-2. I think the Wolverines will go undefeated in non-conference play — yes, I see UM beating Alabama. The Crimson Tide are more talented, but in the first game of the season, experience will win out. However, I think they will lose two conference games, which would likely leave them just on the outside looking in if there were a playoff. But given that it has the best combination of experience and talent in the conference, Michigan would be the Big Ten's best bet to have a representative in a four-team playoff this year.