The new four team playoff to determine college football's national champion is still two years away, but it's already sparking a positive change at Wisconsin. With strength of schedule being a factor in determining seeding in the new format, coach Bret Bielema and athletic director Barry Alvarez have been making some preliminary moves to improve the quality of the Badgers' nonconference opponents.
It's about time. For years, the Badgers' nonconference schedule has been criticized in the media and by fans as being too soft. Season ticket holders have grumbled about having to pay for tickets to games against Football Championship Subdivision schools like Wofford (2009), Austin Peay (2010), South Dakota (2011), and Northern Iowa (the 2012 opener on September 1st). A victory over an FCS school doesn't mean much in the polls, since a Bowl Subdivision school is supposed to win those games. A loss, or even a narrow win over an FCS school can be costly in terms of prestige, as the Badgers found out in 2008 when they escaped with a 36-35 win over Cal Poly in 2008. If the Badgers are committed to improving the nonconference schedule, the first thing to go should be games against FCS opponents.
Wisconsin has also had a tendency to schedule too few nonconference games with teams from the college football power conferences--SEC, ACC, Pac-12, and the Big 12. The Badgers had no games with teams from these conferences in 2009, one (Arizona State) in 2010, and one (Oregon State) in 2011. Oregon State is on the schedule again this year, along with non power conference teams Northern Iowa, Utah State, and Texas-El Paso. It's no wonder Wisconsin's nonconference schedule is dismissed by the critics as too soft for a team with national championship ambitions.
There's nothing wrong with having one Utah State or UNLV on the schedule, but I'd like to see at least two and preferably three of the four nonconference games scheduled against teams from power conferences. That doesn't mean they need to play three conference champion caliber teams every year. For example, scheduling home and home series with Iowa State and Missouri, two teams close to Wisconsin geographically would be a good fit. There are a lot of FBS teams that Wisconsin has not played or rarely played that would generate fan interest in the non conference schedule. The Badgers frequently play SEC teams when they go to a Bowl game other than the Rose Bowl, so taking on an SEC opponent regularly in the nonconference season would give the Badgers a look at that conference's style of play.
Fortunately, Bielema and Alvarez appear to be moving in the right direction on this. They've been talking to Notre Dame about a home and home series later in this decade, and a game or games against Alabama has entered the discussion. The Big 10 also has a proposed scheduling agreement with the Pac-12 that will take effect in 2017 if approved. These are all encouraging steps.
The focus remains on winning the Big Ten title, and Wisconsin is a perennial contender, but it's important to be able to beat teams from other conferences as well. The Badgers have lost four of their last five Bowl games, so they need to play better against quality nonconference opponents if they want to take the program to elite status.
A Featured Contributor in Sports for the Yahoo! Contributor Network, Mark Hudziak has been a fan of Wisconsin football since the 1960's.
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