When the Capital One Bowl match-up was announced, the general consensus among many South Carolina Gamecocks fans was that in the Wisconsin Badgers, we had drawn a Big 10 team that we should handle without too much difficulty. Many were surprised when the Badgers opened as slight favorites.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. There's good reason to believe that Wisconsin is a significantly under-ranked team. The Badgers enter bowl season ranked 19th in the BCS standings. However, Football Outsider's FEI rating system, which assesses teams based on how well they play on a drive-by-drive basis and which is adjusted for strength of schedule, ranks Wisconsin 13th. Among Top 25 teams FEI likes more than the BCS standings, this difference of six between FEI rank and BCS standings is among the larger differentials. Arizona St.'s nine (more on the Sun Devils later.) and Southern Cal's, Georgia's, and Oklahoma St.'s seven also stand out. Washington, Notre Dame, BYU, and Virginia Tech should also be mentioned for not appearing in the BCS standings but coming in at 17, 19, 21, and 24, respectively, in FEI. As an aside, I note that that Oklahoma, Central Florida, and--surprise!--Clemson and Duke appear severely over-ranked in the BCS according to FEI.
Now, FEI isn't always right. Like any computer-generated ranking system, it struggles to account for "human" factors such as luck, which as we all know can play a big role in college football. What's more, a sport like college football that that has a small per-season sample size combined with high season-to-season variance presents a challenge. That said, FEI does provide solid data regarding how teams perform on a per-drive basis. The data reflects quality of opposition. The data, in this case, says that Wisconsin is better than the BCS thinks.
Why's that the case? Well, for one thing, 9/14/2013. That day, the Badgers lost a thriller to the Arizona St. Sun Devils, a team that's not only good but also profoundly underrated according to FEI. As some of you might remember, the game had an extremely unusual ending:
In a season defined by crazy moments, this was one of the craziest, although it's lost it's notoriety in recent weeks due to what we've seen happen in Jordan-Hare Stadium. In any event, I post this here not to stake a claim in the debate over who's to blame for what went wrong here, but just to say that if things had gone according to plan, Wisconsin would have won a road game against a top-tier Pac-12 team. The FEI ratings reflect that to some extent. Because they emphasize drive efficiency over record, this game benefits the Badgers in FEI because FEI recognizes that Wisconsin played well enough to win on the road against an excellent team. The BCS, which includes human polls, penalizes Wisconsin more heavily for this game because many human voters heavily emphasize W-L. If Wisconsin had won, which they probably should have, they'd be a borderline top-10 team in the BCS.
This is all to say that we should recognize that Wisconsin is very likely better than the 19th-best team in the country. What's more, a team rated 13th in FEI can beat an unpredictable Gamecocks team in the Capital One Bowl. A team that can go on the road and play well enough to win at Arizona St. is capable of beating the Gamecocks, no doubt. The perception among Carolina fans seems to be that Wisconsin gained its ranking by beating up on weak B10 teams, and while there may be some truth to the perception that the B10 isn't a strong conference this season, that may be just as true of Carolina as it is of Wisconsin considering Carolina's relatively easy SEC slate this season. What stands out at me about Wisconsin is that they played Ohio St. as well as anyone other than Michigan St., in Columbus no less, and that they should have beaten ASU. This is a good team.
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