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Tom Oates: Better bowl game on the line for Badgers

November 17, 2018

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Back when athletic director Barry Alvarez was coaching the University of Wisconsin football team, the bowl selection process was easy to decipher.

Often, the postseason picture would become crystal clear and a team would know its likely bowl destination even before the regular season ended.

“It used to be where you had a pretty good idea,” UW coach Paul Chryst said as the bowl-eligible Badgers prepared to face Purdue in their next-to-last regular-season game today. “Coach Alvarez was a master of (predicting). He was in on it and he knew. Now it seems like you don’t really know until everyone finds out.”

That’s especially true for the Badgers this season. Saddled with an unsightly 6-4 record in a Big Ten Conference teeming with middle-of-the-pack teams, UW could end up anywhere from Florida to California to northern cities such as New York or Detroit, depending on how the final two weeks of the season play out.

The Badgers’ preference?

“You’d rather go somewhere warm,” guard Michael Deiter said. “That’s what I would say.”

That’s all anyone can say at this point because there are so many more variables than there were even 10 or 15 years ago.

Back then, there was only one playoff game — the BCS Championship Game — to muddy the bowl picture at the top, conferences hadn’t expanded to 12 or 14 teams yet and the one-division Big Ten had a distinct pecking order and concrete bowl tie-ins.

Now, there is a four-team playoff field selected by a committee in early December, four more New Year’s Six bowls with pairings determined by the committee, championship games in all five power conferences, more bowl games than ever before and bowl tie-ins that have been softened as bowls try to avoid hosting the same teams every year.

All of which contributes to extreme uncertainty at this time of year.

Some think the Badgers have little to play for as their major goals — College Football Playoff, Big Ten title, West Division title — have been removed from consideration after losses in their past three road games. However, Saturday’s game at Purdue is a pivotal one in the Big Ten’s bowl pecking order as both teams are jockeying for the same position. The Badgers are 6-4 and the Boilermakers 5-5 in a bowl scenario where even leapfrogging one team could mean the difference between a warm-weather site and an outdoor game at Yankee Stadium in New York.

Those aren’t the stakes the Badgers are used to playing for at this time of year, but that is the hand they’ve been dealt or, more accurately, the hand they’ve dealt to themselves.

Of course, when asked about their bowl preferences, the Badgers insist they’re not thinking past the Purdue game. Well, most of them anyway.

“I think guys are just now exploring it, just now thinking about it,” safety D’Cota Dixon said. “It’s being thrown around and talked about a little bit. But the biggest challenge this week is Purdue. It’s a good football team. There’s still football left. There’s still a few more opportunities left. We’ve got to maximize it.”

The best way to maximize it would be to beat Purdue Saturday, beat Minnesota (5-5) at home next week and finish with an 8-4 record. That would assure UW of having the fourth-best overall record in the Big Ten — though there likely would be others at 8-4 — and make it more attractive to the bowls in a down season.

“That’s something that you just worry about after your last game,” Deiter said. “Where are we going? What should be start packing? But it’s too early to do that now. We’ve got to win more games to try to make yourself (get) in a better bowl game.”

Understanding fully that many things can happen, here’s how the Big Ten bowl picture looks with two regular-season games remaining:

If the season ended now, Michigan (9-1) would be in the CFP final four and Ohio State (9-1) would be in the Rose Bowl. Unless one drubs the other when they meet next week or there is a huge upset in the Big Ten title game, it is likely that both will end up in a New Year’s Six bowl at the very least.

The Citrus Bowl in Orlando and Outback Bowl in Tampa are next up in the conference’s pecking order. Penn State (7-3) seems destined for one of those Florida bowls with UW in the mix for the other one along with Michigan State (6-4), Northwestern (6-4) and Iowa (6-4).

In line for the Big Ten’s fifth team is the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. Its agreement with the conference calls for five different teams in six years, so UW, Minnesota and Michigan State won’t be high on its list, though the rules aren’t hard and fast.

Following the Holiday Bowl is the tag team of the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville and the Music City Bowl in Nashville. The Big Ten and ACC get three appearances in each bowl over a six-year span and the Big Ten has played in the past two Music City bowls, so it seems likely the conference will put a team in the Gator Bowl this year.

That’s seven 6-4 or better teams for six bowls and it doesn’t count the 5-5 teams such as Purdue, Minnesota, Maryland and Indiana, any of which could win twice and move up the ladder. The final three bowl affiliations are, in order, the Pinstripe Bowl in New York, Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, California, and Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, any of which would love to have UW.

UW could do better, though, and that’s entirely up to the Badgers.

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